Sarkozy’s Second Wind

One of the peculiarities of the French parliamentary system of government is the strategic cabinet shuffle. It can serve a variety of purposes, the most prominent being to register popular disapproval of a specific government action, or even its general record, without calling new elections that could jeopardize its majority. That’s how former President Jacques Chirac responded to the brutal defeat of the EU treaty referendum in 2005, at a time when many suggested that political honor dictated he resign. It can also be used to reward loyalty, as well as to settle political scores and hobble party rivals, for instance by giving them posts they’re bound to fail in so that they take the fall.

In the case of the “remaniement” just announced by French President Nicolas Sarkozy, it’s primarily an attempt to generate momentum at the midway point of what’s become a politically moribund presidency in an even more politically moribund France. If there’s one positive note, it’s the thought that up until 2002, the presidential term was seven years.

Interestingly, among the ministers holding onto their posts is Foreign Minister Bernard Kouchner, who was often portrayed as being the object of Sarkozy’s disdain and having a relatively weak hold on his job. His reappointment probably has to do with Kouchner’s faithful service as a useful idiot, allowing Sarkozy to run foreign policy to a large degree out of Elysée, while subordinating his fiery idealist rhetoric to the needs of his boss (i.e., plenty to say about the Iran elections, but hard to find when it comes to Israel in Gaza, Russia in Georgia, Libya and China).

Less surprising is the reappointment of Defense Minister Hervé Morin, who’s handled a tough situation — forced base closures, an upopular deployment to Afghanistan, and an openly strained relationship between Sarkozy and his general staff — exceptionally well. Morin’s a real pro, informed and intelligent, and above all pragmatic (just ask François Bayrou, who he sold out between rounds of the 2007 presidential election to get his current position).