Sarkozy’s Cabinet Shuffle: Will Anything Change?

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Though hastily organized in appearance, the cabinet shuffle announced by French President Nicolas Sarkozy Sunday night was in fact designed to do something that had long become inevitable: dump scandal-plagued Foreign Affairs Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie. But while Sarkozy justified the shake-up as necessary to get France’s sidelined diplomacy back in the foreign affairs game—especially in the dramatically evolving Arab world—serious questions remain about how much impact changes to the government can have when Sarkozy himself continues to dominate of virtually all policy-making from within the Elysée.

Sarkozy announced the shuffle—his second since November–during a rare televised address Sunday night that the Elysée only decided to organize the previous day. He explained the changes at four key ministerial posts were urgent for France to again become active and decisive in turbulent international events, and to better manage the surge in immigration expected to arise from them. The moves came after nearly three months of hesitation, tardiness, and confusion by French authorities in responding to popular uprising in the Arab world—including former French colonies. Central to those was Sarkozy’s appointment of Alain Juppé—a former premier and foreign minister who, since the last cabinet shake-up in November, had been Defense Minister—to replace the controversy-dogged Alliot-Marie as Foreign Affairs Minister. The other changes involved Juppé’s replacement as Defense Minister, and one Sarkozy intimate replacing another as Interior Minister.

But it was evident the major objective in the shifts was to get rid of Alliot-Marie, who had become a major political liability to the ruling right. Her unraveling began in January, as critics railed at France’s lack of response to the uprising in Tunisia that would soon bring down President Zine El-Abidine Ben Ali. Alliot-Marie the made things worse on Jan. 11 by proposing France  provide forces to help the Tunisian dictator maintain order as unrest surged.  It was later learned she and her companion—also a member of government—had flown free of charge on the plane of a rich businessman close to Ben Ali when they vacationed in Tunisia in late December. As Alliot-Marie continued denying any wrong doing in the affair, further press reports revealed her parents had finalized the purchase of a company from the Tunisian businessman during that same December trip. Still other revelations alleged Alliot-Marie had telephoned Ben-Ali to express her support in his ultimately failed showdown with protestors.

The ensuing uproar was not limited to France, where calls for Alliot-Marie to be sacked have grown for weeks. In February, a Tunisian minister in the first post-Ben Ali government was forced to resign amid public outcry over his defense of Alliot-Marie’s private dealings with the deposed regime. Just last week, meanwhile, a French government delegation to Tunisia was led by Finance Minister Christine Lagarde after it was decided Alliot-Marie’s presence risked provoking more protest. Still, up to the end, Alliot-Marie remained defiant in maintaining she’d done nothing wrong, and vowed not to resign. When she finally did step down before Sarkozy’s speech Sunday, she made it clear in her resignation letter she’d been pushed from her post, rather than jumped on her own.

Still, her departure will not quickly quell concerns about France’s unfocused, ineffective, and increasingly absentee diplomacy in the face of swiftly evolving international affairs has been frequently aired in the country—including among some conservative critics. Many of those objections pre-date the turmoil in the Arab world, and put the blame directly on Sarkozy. Some observers say that by concentrating all foreign policy decision-making within the Elysée, Sarkozy’ administration has allowed—or even promoted—the decay and marginalization of the nation’s foreign ministry and it’s formerly admired international network of diplomats.

Just last week a group of ambassadors penned a text in Le Monde decrying the current situation—and refuting Sarkozy’s recent efforts to blame France’s emissaries abroad for allowing Paris to be caught by surprise by events in Tunisia and Egypt. Last July, meanwhile, a similar piece in Le Monde decried the “devastating effect” Sarkozy’s disdain of the foreign affairs apparatus had had on it, and warned its neglected diplomatic structure had been brought “to the breaking point”.

One of the two authors of that piece was Juppé—a respected conservative who long resisted accepting cabinet positions he feared would be place-holding spots under an omnipotent Sarkozy presidency. Juppé’s decision to accept the job as France’s top diplomat could signal that Sarkozy has finally accepted to embrace the foreign ministry as a full partner in shaping and applying French foreign policy. Yet it may also prove just another change of faces affixed to ministerial titles by a president intent on calling all the shots, no matter how poor the results of that approach have been thus far.