The Guardian explains the power play in Chirac's reshuffling of his Cabinet.
France's hugely popular interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, was handed the job yesterday of spearheading an immensely unpopular programme of reforms as President Jacques Chirac made sweeping changes to his cabinet after the centre-right's humiliating defeat in regional elections.
Mr Sarkozy was appointed finance minister in a major reshuffle which also saw Mr Chirac's close ally, the smooth and aristocratic foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, take over at the interior ministry, and a European commissioner, Michel Barnier, step into Mr de Villepin's shoes at the Quai d'Orsay.
Mr Sarkozy, on the other hand, who constantly tops opinion polls as France's most popular politician, may have the charisma, stature and gift of the gab for the job. The appointment has the added benefit for Mr Chirac that if he fails to convince France's fickle voters of the need for reform, Mr Sarkozy will see his bid to become president in 2007 badly undermined. He faces a huge task overcoming anger over high unemployment, pension reform and budget cuts.
The new job will make or break Mr Sarkozy's ambitions. The minister, who has so far made a name for himself by cracking down successfully on street crime, illegal immigrants and prostitution, is by no means certain to make such a success of his new and considerably less high-profile role as head of government finances.
The same could, however, be said of Mr Villepin, the part-time poet and arch Chirac loyalist who won over the French public by eloquently voicing France's opposition to the US-led war on Iraq.
"To be honest, I just can't see De Villepin visiting some rundown housing estate to talk about rising levels of street crime with youth gang leaders," said one government official who asked not to be named.
But other observers discerned a longer-term strategy in Mr Chirac's choice.
"This is an interim appointment," said one commentator, Marie Eve Malouine. "It's setting up De Villepin to take over from Raffarin as prime minister, probably after the June elections, and establishing his credentials as Chirac's preferred successor. This is all about keeping out Sarkozy."
So basically, Chirac, for his own political purposes, has replaced the one guy with the semblence of a backbone when standing up to the domestic Islamists with the effete guy who sucks up to the Islamists abroad.
Excellent move, Jackie!