Veteran Juppe named new French foreign minister

Michele had offered to send French forces to help quell Tunisia uprising.

Paris: Veteran politician Alain Juppe was appointed France`s foreign minister on Sunday after Michele Alliot-Marie quit over a series of gaffes that damaged the government at a crucial time for relations with North Africa.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, whose poor ratings have been dragged lower by a storm of criticism of Alliot-Marie, said uprisings sweeping through North African states meant a new approach was needed to help them build stable democracies.

Juppe will be given the job of restoring France`s diplomatic credibility and ensuring it takes the right approach to the pro-democracy movement, especially in former colonies where the French elite has had close ties with authoritarian rulers.

"In this way the country`s key ministries will be prepared to confront the events ahead, the outcome of which nobody can predict," Sarkozy said in a brief televised address.

Alliot-Marie was forced out following a hail of criticism from opposition parties and the media over a series of blunders in her handling of the revolt in Tunisia.

Her successor Juppe was brought into Sarkozy`s team as defence minister in a November reshuffle. It marked a comeback for a conservative heavyweight who served as foreign minister and prime minister in the 1990s but was sidelined for several years over his role in a party financing scandal.

His political standing survived that scandal and he will now become one of the most influential figures in the government, likely to overshadow the quiet Prime Minister Francois Fillon.

Alliot-Marie, in the job only since November, presented her resignation to Sarkozy in a hand-delivered letter which alleged there was a political and media campaign against her.

"For the last few weeks I have been the target of political and media attacks that have spread untruths and confusion in order to create suspicion," she wrote in the letter, a copy of which was obtained by a news agency.

"I ask you to accept my resignation," the letter said.

The reshuffle was announced on the eve of a meeting in Geneva between US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and other foreign ministers to discuss the crisis in Libya.

In two weeks, Paris hosts a gathering of Group of Eight foreign ministers which will be dominated by Libya and how the world should handle further unrest in North Africa.

Sarkozy said in his speech European leaders needed to be vigilant to the risk of the unrest sparking uncontrolled migration and new terrorism threats on their doorstep.
Sarkozy, who has tweaked his cabinet several times since taking office in 2007, appointed the ruling UMP party`s leader in the Senate, Gerard Longuet, as defence minister.

In a move seen as accommodating Juppe`s wish to have more control over foreign policy than his predecessors, the reshuffle will move Sarkozy`s Chief of Staff Claude Gueant, who has largely overseen foreign affairs, to interior minister.

He replaces Brice Hortefeux, who is expected to become a presidential adviser, according to government sources.

Alliot-Marie`s fall from grace came as a surprise after a steady political career in which she rose at one point to the conservative party leadership and became the first woman to head France`s defence and interior ministries.

Calls for her head grew steadily louder after her clumsy handling of the crisis in Tunisia, including taking a holiday there as protests raged and accepting plane rides from an associate of the now-ousted president Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali.

Alliot-Marie has been unable to visit the region since the fall of Ben Ali. She was banished to a low-profile trip to Brazil last week while Finance Minister Christine Lagarde flew to Tunisia to meet the provisional government there.

"This should have happened sooner," centrist former defence minister Herve Morin said of the reshuffle.

"We had a foreign minister who could not go to a place where the stability of the Mediterranean was being decided," he told iTele television.

Sarkozy came under attack earlier this month for the way his government has run foreign policy. Critics accused his inner circle of riding roughshod over foreign service chiefs and making impulsive decisions without consulting diplomats.

Bureau Report