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French government reshuffle expected

French voters delivered a stinging defeat to President Jacques Chirac’s government and its program of painful economic reforms in regional elections Sunday.
/ Source: The Associated Press

President Jacques Chirac met with his prime minister Monday and was expected to reshuffle his conservative party government in response to a rout by Socialists in weekend local elections.

Chirac’s office would say only that the president was “working with the prime minister on decisions he must take in the very next days.” But observers expressed little doubt that some high-profile ministers would lose their jobs.

The only questions were the timing of the shake-up, how deep it would be and whether it would include Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin himself.

“There’s a necessity to deeply reshuffle the government to show the public that change is coming,” said Jean-Francois Doridot, a director of political studies at the Ipsos polling firm. “If there is a change in prime minister, it will come quickly.”

Raffarin discretely visited Chirac’s presidential palace Monday morning, entering through a side gate. He later slipped back to his prime minister’s residence through the gardens.

Results by regions
The Socialists, combining forces with the Communist Party and the Greens, won 20 out of mainland France’s 22 regions in the elections Sunday, holding onto the eight it already ran and conquering 12 others.

Conservatives secured only one region — Alsace, in eastern France. The Socialists and conservatives were running so close on the island of Corsica that the vote there was still too close to call.

The sweeping victory isolated the conservative president with a losing team and an unpopular party midway through his five-year term.

The results jolted the political landscape and amounted to an angry call to the French leadership to change course. Many voters were apparently angered by painful reforms to save state pensions and the social security system from bankruptcy, and bring France’s budget deficit in line with European Union rules.

Chirac’s popularity rose at home when he became a leading voice against the United States over the Iraq war, and the electoral drubbing forced him to refocus on his domestic flank.

But while ministerial changes were expected, the government said its reforms must continue.

“Stopping the reforms would be suicidal for our country,” said government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope. He lost a high-profile battle to unseat the left in the Paris region.

“Immobility is impossible,” added Francois Baroin, spokesman for Chirac’s governing Union for a Popular Movement party. “We must deal with health insurance, we must deal with national education reform, we must deal with labor policies.”

Who might be on way out
Ministers who might lose their jobs included Francis Mer at finance, Jean-Francois Mattei at health and Education Minister Luc Ferry.

Chirac could opt to keep Raffarin until he sees through reforms to the indebted health insurance system. Those plans are already drawing the left’s ire.

Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande urged the government to change course entirely — not simply retool its lineup.

Despite the pressure France faces from the European Union to rein in its budget deficit to within EU limits, voters showed they have little stomach for deep cuts to prized public services and social protections.

“The French want reforms, but fair reforms,” said Segolene Royal, who delivered a stinging personal blow to the prime minister by leading the left to victory in the western Poitou-Charentes region that used to be Raffarin’s fiefdom.

Chirac “must profoundly change his policies,” she said.