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Sarkozy’s team is small in size, wide in scope

Times Staff Writers

President Nicolas Sarkozy unveiled a streamlined Cabinet of historic diversity and ideological scope Friday, appointing leftists, centrists, an unprecedented proportion of women and France’s first powerful minister of North African descent.

The center-right president had raised expectations by promising that his government would be run by a talented “dream team,” breaking down barriers of gender, ethnicity and party politics.

On Friday, seven women ministers were named by Sarkozy, an unprecedented proportion of the Cabinet, which was reduced from 30 to 15 ministries.

Sarkozy crossed party lines to name Socialist Bernard Kouchner, a popular humanitarian activist and founder of Doctors Without Borders, as foreign minister. The appointment, along with those of three leftists named to junior minister posts, was viewed as a strategic coup intended to widen Sarkozy’s political base and splinter an already demoralized Socialist Party before next month’s legislative elections.

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The government also featured veteran leaders and well-known faces. Among them were Prime Minister Francois Fillon, a former social affairs minister emerging as one of the president’s closest lieutenants, and Alain Juppe, a former prime minister who was convicted in a corruption scandal in 2004 that resulted in his being barred from politics for a year. Sarkozy put Juppe in charge of a “super-ministry” overseeing environment and durable development.

Still, the Cabinet has a new-generation look aimed at shaking up what is widely seen as an inbred and elitist ruling class. Perhaps the most dramatic symbol: the choice of Rachida Dati, 41, as minister of justice.

The French-born Dati grew up in a low-income housing project, one of 12 children of an Algerian father and a Moroccan mother. She worked as a magistrate, advised Sarkozy when he was interior minister and served as his campaign spokeswoman. She becomes the first leader of North African descent to run a key ministry in a society whose large population of immigrants, predominantly from Muslim backgrounds, has remained almost invisible in the Cabinet, legislature, corporate boardrooms and City Halls.

“I’m very moved. It’s a position of real responsibility,” Dati told journalists Friday, promising to be “the justice minister who restores the confidence of the French in the justice system and will truly involve them in its mission.”

The preceding government had a junior minister for equal opportunity who was of North African descent, but even that minister acknowledged that it was a largely symbolic and marginal post.

The top woman in the new government is Michele Alliot-Marie, a former defense chief. She will oversee law enforcement and intelligence agencies as minister of interior security.

Sarkozy also created a ministry of immigration and national identity, fulfilling a campaign promise to work harder at integrating immigrants and inculcating them with French values. He entrusted that sensitive task to a longtime lieutenant, Brice Hortefeux.

Sarkozy’s choice of defense minister was a blow to the camp of centrist Francois Bayrou, who won 6.8 million votes in the first round of the presidential election but is now watching his support evaporate. The new defense chief is Herve Morin, who until recently served as parliamentary chief of Bayrou’s political party.

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In cutting the number of ministry posts, Sarkozy overhauled the structure of the government to make it leaner and more agile as he prepares for an ambitious program to trim taxes and bureaucracy in an effort to spur growth and employment.

The new structure fuses previously separate portfolios such as health and sports. It also splits the economy ministry to create a budget portfolio and a major new ministry for economic strategy headed by Jean-Louis Borloo, a well-liked centrist who, along with Fillon, will play a lead role in high-stakes negotiations with labor unions, student groups and the left.

The opposition assailed Sarkozy for selecting leaders from rival parties, with several Socialists calling Kouchner a traitor. Liberation newspaper said Sarkozy was “confiscating all the political space for his own benefit.”

rotella@latimes.com

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