Nicolas Sarkozy is working with François Fillon, the Prime Minister, on revamping the Cabinet
Charles Bremner, Paris
President Sarkozy fired a key minister last night in a move designed to quell rebellion within his party after its defeat in regional elections on Sunday.
In a cabinet reshuffle Xavier Darcos, 63, his Labour Minister, paid the price for a personal defeat in Aquitaine that left the President’s Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) holding only one of the 22 main French regions.
Mr Darcos had the task of executing Mr Sarkozy’s promise to raise retirement age this summer. Protest against that unpopular move will be at the heart of a long-scheduled day of stoppages and demonstrations by public sector workers today. Mr Darcos was replaced by Éric Woerth, the Budget Minister and a freemarket Conservative.
Mr Sarkozy, who is looking vulnerable before the campaign for the 2012 presidential election, plans to win back core right-wing supporters who were confused when he embraced some left-wing ideas and personalities.
To quell possible mutiny in his camp he also brought into the Cabinet François Baroin, a former minister and protégé of the former President Jacques Chirac. The appointment of Mr Baroin, 44, as Budget Minister may help to defuse attempts to mount an anti-Sarkozy movement by Dominique de Villepin, the former Prime Minister under Mr Chirac.
While François Fillon, the Prime Minister, worked with Mr Sarkozy on revamping the Cabinet yesterday, Mr de Villepin declared war. He is to create a new party to oppose him in the presidential election, his aides announced.
Jean-Pierre Raffarin, another rival and former Prime Minister, urged Mr Sarkozy to slow his reforms and called for a party confidence vote in them. One senator, Jean-Louis Masson of the Moselle, asked whether Mr Sarkozy was the right man to represent the UMP in the next campaign.
Mr Sarkozy’s team acknowledged that voters had signalled unhappiness by handing a victory to the Socialists and Greens in Sunday’s elections. The UMP held on only in Alsace, winning 36 per cent of the national vote compared with 54 per cent for the Socialists and their allies.
Some commentators questioned the wisdom of moving right to satisfy Mr Sarkozy’s core voters, while he has alienated many of the Centre and former left-wing voters who backed him in 2007. Left-wing media revelled in France’s swing on Sunday but Socialists avoided sounding triumphant. Martine Aubry, the leader, called for realism in the knowledge that the party is still far from winning national power.
The election opened the way to party feuding because it gave new life to Ségolène Royal, Ms Aubry’s chief rival and the former presidential candidate.
After winning 60 per cent of the vote in Poitou-Charentes, her western base, Ms Royal made clear that she wants to become the party’s candidate in 2012. At least three others are seeking the nomination, which is to be decided in a primary vote next year.
The far-right National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen also returned to life, winning 17 per cent of the vote in the 12 regions where it took part in the run-off. Marine Le Pen, the leader’s daughter and lieutenant, won 22 per cent of the vote in the Nord-Pas de Calais.
Claude Guéant, Mr Sarkozy’s chief of staff, called the results “a big wake-up call for quick and effective action” to tackle unemployment and repair the economy.
Mr Fillon, 56, who is holding on to his post despite tension with the President, said: “We have not been convincing.”
An opinion poll yesterday showed that 50 per cent of the country wants no let-up in Mr Sarkozy’s reforms.