PARIS – French President Nicolas Sarkozy shuffled his Cabinet's top diplomatic and security posts on Sunday, jettisoning his foreign minister who has been roundly criticized for her ties to Tunisia's ousted regime.
The unpopular French leader went on prime-time TV to announce the changes, just three months after a previous Cabinet shakeup — and clearly hoping to buff his image ahead of France's presidential election next year.
Sarkozy's seven-minute address focused on foreign affairs and sought to counter critics who have faulted his government's response to upheaval in the Arab world, including several former French colonies in North Africa.
"These Arab revolutions open a new era in our relations with these countries, with whom we are so close in history and geography," he said, speaking from in front of a bookshelf in the Elysee Palace. "This change is historic. We must not be afraid."
Sarkozy made no reference to Foreign Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, who hours earlier sent him her resignation. He simply said Defense Minister Alain Juppe, a longtime ally of popular former President Jacques Chirac, will now be France's top diplomat.
Alliot-Marie had only been in the post since November, but became the center of a raging controversy for her December vacation in Tunisia as huge protests forced out the former French protectorate's longtime strongman.
Alliot-Marie, 64, has served in high-ranking posts since France's conservatives regained control of the National Assembly in 2002. She was the first woman to serve both as defense and foreign minister.
She had a reputation as a workhorse — loyal and reliable, if rather uninspiring. But the furor over her holiday in Tunisia as its longtime regime was crumbling showed her to be politically tone-deaf.
In place of Juppe, the president said Gerard Longuet, a former government minister who heads Sarkozy's conservative party in the Senate, will take up the defense portfolio.
Claude Gueant, formerly Sarkozy's chief of staff, was named interior minister in place of Brice Hortefeux. Hortefeux, a Sarkozy confidant for decades, had increasingly become a political liability for his gruff demeanor, lackluster record and two convictions — one of which involved a racially tinged remark he made at a party gathering.
The shake-up comes only three months after Sarkozy last altered the Cabinet. At the time, he said he expected that shuffle to be his last before the 2012 presidential election, "barring the unforeseen."
The Arab world upheaval — and a massive political controversy over Alliot-Marie's entanglement with Tunisia's ousted regime — changed all that. Sarkozy's speech Sunday aimed to re-center him as foreign policy chief.
He said France mustn't interfere, but help to foster steps toward democracy on the other side of the Mediterranean — a region with which he has sought to build stronger ties since he took power in 2007.
"If all those of good will don't unite to make them succeed, they could also sink into violence and end up with dictatorships that are even worse than the previous ones," he said, without specifying the countries.
"We know what the consequences of such tragedies could be on migratory flows that could become uncontrolled, and on terrorism," Sarkozy added.
A recent poll showed a double-digit drop in Alliot-Marie's popularity after she accepted a free ride in Tunisia on a jet of a businessman who had ties to former President Zine Ben Abidine Ben Ali's family. It later emerged that her aging parents signed a real estate deal with a businessman allegedly close to the fallen regime.
"Though I have the feeling of not having done anything wrong, I have thus decided to leave my post as minister of foreign and European affairs," Alliot-Marie wrote to Sarkozy in a letter made public by her office.
She said she had become "the target of political and then media attacks trading in suspicions, counter-truths and shortcuts" over the case, and didn't want Sarkozy or French diplomacy to be harmed as a result.
Sarkozy has been at pains to revive his poll numbers, which have been lagging for months, and Alliot-Marie appeared to take a fall for behavior that, while clumsy, was little different from others in elite French political circles.
"This is a real improvisation on the part of Nicolas Sarkozy," said Jean-Marc Ayrault, who leads the opposition Socialist Party in the National Assembly, saying the speech sounded like "an admission of failure."
French Prime Minister Francois Fillon also faced criticism over his Christmas family holiday in Egypt, which funded by the regime of ousted President Hosni Mubarak.
Fillon has since required ministers to get government approval before taking vacations outside the European Union, a move aimed at curbing their longtime practice of accepting junkets from foreign governments.
Fillon, whose popularity ratings have been far higher than that of his boss, kept his job Sunday.