PARIS – France's new defense minister Alain Juppe, an old-guard conservative, said Monday that he accepted the No. 2 post in a Cabinet shakeup to keep the left from power in 2012 presidential elections.
President Nicolas Sarkozy, with record low popularity ratings, appointed the new Cabinet Sunday night after a weekend of tough negotiations that sidelined key centrists and other ministers from outside the conservative mainstream.
Top posts went to politicians emblematic of the old guard, like Juppe, mayor of Bordeaux and a close ally of former President Jacques Chirac, father of today's conservatives. Juppe was convicted in 2004 of financial irregularities. Francois Fillon kept the prime minister's job.
Outgoing Defense Minister Herve Morin, a centrist, dismissed the new Cabinet as a "campaign team" hours before it was named, and told reporters Monday that "very clearly, this government is looking to the electoral combat."
Juppe said, "I don't want to see the left return to power" and added that he is happy "if I can serve by being in the government."
The outgoing defense minister walked out on giving the traditional speech during the handover ceremony to Juppe, leaving the ministry to applause. It was a repeat of a scene minutes earlier, when outgoing Environment Minister Jean-Louis Borloo, a leading centrist, gave a pass on a speech as he turned his ministry over to Nathalie Kosciusko-Morizet.
Morin and Borloo had joined the previous government as part of Sarkozy's bid to reach across the political spectrum for an inclusive team that also included figures from France's multicultural heritage.
Sarkozy had said months ago that he would reshuffle the Cabinet after his controversial reform of the pension system became law, as it did last Wednesday. Raising the retirement age from 60 to 62, triggered weeks of strikes that put France on the edge of a fuel crisis.
France's new labor minister pledged to meet with union leaders, but the Cabinet reshuffle is expected to herald more spending cuts.
Labor Minister Xavier Bertrand said on RTL radio Monday that he would hold talks with union leaders in the coming days, saying "dialogue is essential to success."
Bertrand replaces Eric Woerth, who saw through the painful pension reform — but was also ensnared in a scandal involving the fortunes of Europe's richest woman, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt.
If Sarkozy's new government was hoping for a fresh start, nationwide protests by prison guards Monday served as a reminder that many French workers aren't ready to accept cuts without a fight.
Justice Minister Michel Mercier, a rare centrist, started his first day on the job with protesting guards blocking penitentiary headquarters in Marseille and elsewhere.