Sarkozy clears decks for French government reshuffle

France`s President accepts pro forma resignation of PM and his entire govt.

Paris: France`s President Nicolas Sarkozy was expected to name a new cabinet on Sunday after clearing the decks for his long-awaited cabinet reshuffle by accepting the pro forma resignation of Prime Minister Francois Fillon and his entire government.

Fillon is expected to be rapidly re-appointed premier, and he will then go on to name a new team of ministers, hoping to reinvigorate the government and thus kickstart Sarkozy`s undeclared 2012 re-election campaign.

Government officials and the governing UMP party said Sarkozy would name the new prime minister on Sunday morning and the cabinet later in the day.

The resignation is a traditional formality, allowing the head of state to pick new ministers without having to fire his existing team, and has been in the cards since June, when Sarkozy confirmed he was planning a reshuffle.

He had first signalled in March that he planned to renew his cabinet, and there has been mounting political tension in recent months as his supporters jostle for places in the build-up to his expected run for re-election.

In the months since the reshuffle was mooted two ministers were forced to resign over expenses scandals and another, Labour Minister Eric Woerth, clung on despite being implicated in a probe into alleged illegal party funding.

The government has stumbled forward with Sarkozy`s trademark determination, but its leader has plumbed new depths of unpopularity and many observers view the reshuffle as a last chance to seize control of the agenda before 2012.

Sarkozy`s own opinion poll approval ratings dropped to around 30 percent, as voters turned their backs on his domineering personal style or were outraged by austerity measures like his raising of the retirement age.

In recent months, he has taken a sharp swerve to the right, in particular on law and order and immigration issues, sparking international outrage with a drive to expel Roma Gypsies back to their homelands in Eastern Europe.

Observers expect the new cabinet to be smaller and to be dominated by members of Sarkozy`s own right-wing majority party, the UMP, as the President tries to shore up his conservative support base in time for the election.

Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, a high-profile former Socialist, is expected to go, and right-wing former prime minister Alain Juppe confirmed on Saturday that he expects to rejoin government as defence minister.

In recent weeks, there had been widespread speculation that Sarkozy would attempt to mollify the centre-right by appointing his outgoing environment minister, Jean-Louis Borloo, in Fillon`s place as prime minister.

But Fillon -- who has consistently enjoyed higher poll ratings than Sarkozy and has support within the majority UMP -- made it clear he wanted to stay, and it was he who met twice with the President on Saturday.

Borloo also saw Sarkozy, but it was Fillon who left the President`s Elysee Palace offices at around 7:30 pm (1830 GMT), shortly before the presidency released the news that set the reshuffle wheels in motion.

Borloo, the government`s number two, has been offered the foreign or justice ministries, or an expanded and more powerful Environment Ministry, aides said.

"Jean-Louis Borloo is studying the offers calmly," one aide said.

Several women were expected to be appointed and the government downsized to 26 members from 37.

There is no power vacuum at the heart of the French state, however, as each minister including Fillon will continue to exercise his or her responsibilities until successors are named. Kouchner, for example, is in Afghanistan.

Bureau Report