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French Cabinet Reshuffle Puts Conservatives At Top

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PARIS — French President Nicolas Sarkozy appointed a new government Sunday in a marathon weekend reshuffle with faithful allies taking top posts clearly aimed at pleasing his conservative ranks before 2012 presidential elections.

The once-disgraced former prime minister, Alain Juppe, who is mayor of Bordeaux, was put in charge of the Defense Ministry and given the No. 2 spot behind Prime Minister Francois Fillon – who retained his job after submitting his government's resignation Saturday night.

The appointment positions Juppe, a long time standard-bearer of the conservatives, for a political renaissance.

The biggest victim was the outreach effort Sarkozy prided himself in when he took office in May 2007, bringing together leftists, centrists and figures representing diversity in an unusual governing coalition.

The Foreign Ministry went to Michele Alliot-Marie, previously justice minister. She replaced Bernard Kouchner, a leftist. He was long known to be on his way out.

Alliot-Marie was replaced in the Justice Ministry by Michel Mercier, one of two centrists remaining in a government that was streamlined from 37 to 30 ministers and bolstered by rightists.

Christine Lagarde kept the critical post of economy minister, an appointment sure to relieve markets and please other G-20 members just as France takes over the reins of the club.

Sarkozy had been expected for months to make changes to his government before 2012 presidential elections. But the reshuffle turned into a highly unusual 24-hour marathon marked by clearly tough negotiations.

Fillon, always notches above Sarkozy in the polls but long seen as a silent workhorse at the president's side, returned to the prime minister's job clearly strengthened.

The new lineup drew criticism from rivals and at least one former collaborator.

Outgoing Defense Minister Herve Morin dismissed the new government as a "campaign team" tailored to the aspirations of Sarkozy and his conservative UMP party before the elections.

"I expected ... a gesture of unity," he told journalists a half-hour before the government was to be announced. Instead, Morin, a centrist, said, "I saw a campaign team" of Sarkozy's conservative. "I regret this."

The head of the rival Socialist Party, Martine Aubry, denounced the reshuffle as "essentially clanic."

"Today it's the hard right folding in on the hard core of the UMP-RPR," she said, referring to Sarkozy's UMP party and its predecessor, the RPR.

A total of 16 ministers lost their jobs, including centrist Ecology Minister Jean-Louis Borloo, former No. 2 in the government, seen until recently as a likely choice for prime minister. He said in a diplomatically-worded statement before the announcement that he chose not to be part of the new team to better serve his values, notably social cohesion.

Other personalities the president installed to reach across the political spectrum and bring diversity to the governing team were among those eliminated, from popular black Sports Minister Rama Yade to Fadela Amara, the former urban affairs minister raised in a French ghetto.

Juppe, for three decades a loyal member of France's conservative ranks, appeared poised for a political rebirth after his 2004 conviction of party financing irregularities that forced him into the desert for three years.

Juppe was named ecology minister in Sarkozy's original government, but had to resign a month later after a failed bid for a parliamentary seat in legislative voting. At the time, Cabinet ministers were encouraged to take on electoral bids to broaden their legitimacy, but Fillon required those who failed to win to resign.

Among those eliminated was Budget Minister Eric Woerth, well liked by Sarkozy but ensnared in a conflict of interest scandal over the fortunes of France's richest woman, L'Oreal heiress Liliane Bettencourt, that risked a political disgrace.

Longtime Sarkozy collaborator Brice Hortefeux was among survivors, retaining his post as interior minister and taking on the additional job of immigration minister. He had led the emblematic immigration ministry when it was created by Sarkozy after taking office.

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Associated Press writer Cecile Roux contributed to this report.

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