PARIS – Conservative president-elect Nicolas Sarkozy is already shaking things up even before he is sworn in: He reached out to labor unions Monday and was looking across the French political divide to Socialists as he rushes to put together a Cabinet.
Sarkozy also resigned Monday as head of France's conservative party, vowing to be true to its values even as he cast himself as unifier-in-chief.
He said he wanted to use the "new momentum" of his May 6 election victory to sweep away hidebound ideologies. There were even reports Sarkozy had decided to name Bernard Kouchner, a Socialist icon who founded humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders, as foreign minister.
"The message to the French people is one of unity, of openness," Sarkozy said as he stepped down from the UMP leadership, part of the French tradition of separating the presidency from political factions. "We must not be afraid to go toward others, not be afraid to go toward different ideas."
Sarkozy is to take over Wednesday from President Jacques Chirac after being elected on promises of change for a nation down on itself and frustrated with traditional left-right political fault lines. Sarkozy's moves Monday suggest he's wasting no time in trying to prove he's different from one-time mentor Chirac, and the economic stagnation and social tensions left over from his 12-year tenure.
The blunt and often uncompromising Sarkozy, loathed by many on the left, took a rare step of hosting union leaders Monday for pre-inauguration talks, in hopes of defusing their opposition to his plans to reform France's protective labor laws.
A guessing-game was in full swing about who will make the cut in Sarkozy's downsized Cabinet of 15 ministers, which aides say will be announced by next Monday.
One official close to Sarkozy said he had settled on the highly popular Kouchner, a former health minister, to be France's top diplomat. The official spoke on condition of anonymity because the discussions are still behind closed doors.
Kouchner has been somewhat of a free agent within the Socialist Party, sometimes speaking against the old guard, and is known and respected abroad.
A spokeswoman for Kouchner had no comment, nor could she confirm a report published in the daily Le Monde saying that he was to meet with Sarkozy later Monday.
Sarkozy's office would not confirm or deny the speculation, and other officials close to him said anything could change between now and the formal announcement of the Cabinet.
Naming a Socialist to a top post would undercut the Socialists' campaign for legislative elections next month. A strong parliamentary majority by Sarkozy's UMP party is seen as crucial to his plans for reform.
Socialists went on the defensive Monday. Prominent party figure Dominique Strauss-Kahn said it would be a "betrayal of oneself" for a leftist to join Sarkozy's government.
Political analyst Pascal Perrineau, of the CEVIPOF think tank, said Sarkozy "is once again catching people off guard."
"It's in his interest to represent the right, center and even, ... because the next months are going to be about reform, to try to go beyond, into the left's terrain," Perrineau said.
Officials said other Socialists were also being considered for his Cabinet, which Sarkozy pledged would hold as many women ministers as men.
Sarkozy is expected to name his prime minister — former Education Minister Francois Fillon is the favorite — shortly after taking office Wednesday.
Labor leaders have criticized Sarkozy's campaign call to require unions in public transport to provide at least minimum service during strikes, which have crippled France in the past.
Sarkozy "emphasized several times that he didn't want to cause difficulty for union organizations and that he wanted to reform the country through dialogue," said Francois Chereque, head of the center-left CFDT union, after talks with Sarkozy.
"We'll see in the decisions whether he heard us or not," added Chereque.
The opposition left, along with unions, fear that Sarkozy will dismantle coveted benefits to make France's labor system more flexible, and will favor the rich over the poor.
Following the election, leftist militants took to the streets in several cities around France, breaking windows and burning cars.
Already Monday, Sarkozy replaced Chirac in Paris' Grevin Museum of wax figures, moving in among other world leaders.