Sarkozy pledges a diverse Cabinet

Times Staff Writer

Nicolas Sarkozy took office as France’s 23rd president Wednesday and moved quickly to deliver on promises of change by assembling a Cabinet of historic diversity that is likely to include an internationally known leader of the leftist opposition.

Sarkozy, 52, succeeded fellow conservative Jacques Chirac, 74, during an elegant ceremony at the Elysee Palace. Chirac greeted Sarkozy on a red carpet in the stone courtyard, then brought him inside for a 35-minute meeting during which the two-term incumbent turned over the codes to France’s nuclear arsenal.

The new president pledged to reach across ideological lines, an effort that has caused tension with some allies. Sarkozy wants his Cabinet to symbolize a new unity by bringing together minorities, numerous women and leaders from rival parties, including the Socialist Party’s Bernard Kouchner, co-founder of Doctors Without Borders.

“To all those who want to serve France, I say from the bottom of my heart that I am ready to work with them,” Sarkozy said in his inaugural address. “I will not ask them to deny their convictions, I will not ask them to betray their friendships, I will not ask them to forget their history. It is up to them to decide in their soul and conscience of free men how they want to serve France.”

The rituals continued with a 21-gun artillery salute and an open-car ride escorted by a cavalry unit in full regalia to the Arc de Triomphe.


Meanwhile, Sarkozy aides resumed the feverish behind-the-scenes task of assembling a government envisioned as a “dream team” that will shake up the traditional elite.

The emerging picture of the Cabinet-in-progress displays Sarkozy’s taste for innovation, his political agility and the goal of involving the already-powerful presidency more directly in day-to-day governance, observers said.

Although appointments will not be announced until later this week, a few key names and decisions were considered all but certain. The big surprise, according to insiders and media reports: Sarkozy’s offer of the foreign minister’s post to Kouchner, one of the most popular figures in politics here.

Kouchner, 67, is a globe-trotting, bullet-dodging celebrity-politician who has aided victims of war and calamity around the world. His group, Doctors Without Borders, went on to win the Nobel Peace Prize in 1999. He has served as health minister and as the U.N. special representative to the Serbian province of Kosovo from 1999 to 2001.

Although Kouchner is a leader of the moderate wing of the Socialists, his star power and activist ideology make him difficult to label. His swashbuckling exploits in the Third World, usually with cameras in tow, provoked resentment among colleagues in the Socialist government of the late President Francois Mitterrand. He advocates a doctrine of the moral necessity of foreign military intervention in defense of human rights. And he was a rare French leader who did not oppose the war in Iraq.

Broader appeal sought

If Kouchner has accepted the Foreign Ministry post, as government officials and the press widely assert, his appointment would be a master stroke by the new president. Sarkozy ran a campaign that initially was aimed at staunch rightists, but he now hopes to broaden his appeal to push through ambitious reforms.

“Kouchner is not a traditional minister,” said a well-placed government official. “It will be quite a coup.”

But it will be a challenge for Kouchner to remain loyal to his outspoken convictions, especially serving a president whom he criticized during the campaign, said colleague Pierre Micheletti in an interview in Liberation newspaper Wednesday.

“How will he put into practice a humanitarian intervention by the state, with all the danger that implies?” asked Micheletti, president of Doctors of the World, which Kouchner co-created after breaking away from Doctors Without Borders in 1980. “For us, the problem is not so much that he enters a rightist government, but that with him as foreign minister, there is a risk of confusion.”

Sarkozy is likely to let Kouchner focus on Africa, Asia and humanitarian questions while the president takes the lead on relations with the United States, Europe and other major powers, analysts said.

In a whirl of meetings with other potential ministers, Sarkozy has been striving to keep promises to appoint a Cabinet that would be half female, a historic step, and that would include ministers of immigrant descent, insiders said. But the process has been complicated by his goal of halving the Cabinet to 15 posts, and a desire to appoint Socialists as well as centrists formerly loyal to Francois Bayrou, who won 18% of the vote in the first-round of the presidential election last month.

Sarkozy’s plans for unity and diversity have caused grumbling in his party, even among his “clan” of disciplined, devoted lieutenants who served him when he was interior minister and chief of his center-right Union for a Popular Movement. As allies realize that they will not get the powerful jobs they expected, a few have expressed disappointment.

“Loyalty is not necessarily the opposite of competence,” Patrick Devedjian, a longtime Sarkozy friend, told the media this week.

At the same time, Sarkozy’s recruitment foray across party lines has angered the demoralized Socialists, who are embroiled in a nasty leadership fight after their presidential candidate, Segolene Royal, lost the May 6 runoff. Francois Hollande, the party chairman, disclosed Tuesday that he had argued with Kouchner after learning that the former health minister was considering an offer from Sarkozy.

Hollande complained that the overtures to Kouchner and other leftists were nothing more than political manipulation.

“This maneuver shows that morality in politics is essential and that is what we defend,” Hollande said. “If Bernard Kouchner enters a Sarkozy government, then he will become a rightist minister.”

Sarkozy’s gambit goes beyond the upcoming legislative elections, in which his party is a favorite. In fact, the bid to reshape the government and traditional political borders risks dissension in his ranks. But he apparently has decided on a strategy of positioning himself in the center and appealing to the broad majority, according to Thierry Vedel, an analyst at the Paris-based Center for the Study of French Political Life.

Echoes of De Gaulle seen

“He is saying, ‘I function directly with the people,’ ” Vedel said. “ ‘My power is not the power of the parties, I was elected by the people.’ It’s a project in French politics that [President Charles] de Gaulle had as well, in which he seeks to create a majority based on shared ideas.”

Unlike previous presidents who largely delegated domestic policy to their prime ministers, Sarkozy is taking a central role in selecting ministers and overhauling the governmental structure to make it leaner and more efficient. He plans to create a single tax agency to end an unwieldy arrangement in which one agency calculates taxes and another collects them, Vedel said.

Similarly, portfolios such as transportation and ecology will be fused into a ministry for sustainable development, he predicted.

“It’s really a reconfiguration of French administration, and there could be enormous resistance, even on the right,” Vedel said. “You get the sense that Sarkozy will be in command and that this is really an evolution of the French presidency that will end up closer to the American system.”

Sarkozy departed Wednesday afternoon on his first foreign trip, flying to Germany to meet with Chancellor Angela Merkel.