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France's Sarkozy Names Moderate Fillon as PM


French President Nicolas Sarkozy named Francois Fillon as prime minister on Thursday, banking on the moderate conservative's negotiating skills to push through sweeping reforms in the face of union resistance.

On his first full day in office, Sarkozy held a breakfast meeting with Fillon before confirming the appointment of the 53-year-old who masterminded Sarkozy's presidential campaign.

Fillon worked with powerful trade unions when he was social affairs minister to push through sensitive pension reforms in 2003, making him a natural choice to spearhead Sarkozy's changes to labour laws and the pensions system.

"In a world of six billion human beings, the 60 million French people must remain united. That is the spirit of openness that the president wants," Fillon said at a handover ceremony with outgoing Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin.

"I will listen to everyone because a France in motion needs everyone."

Fillon's cool temperament contrasts with Sarkozy's high-octane personality. Commentators have said that in the "calm break" with the past that Sarkozy has called for, the right-winger is the break while Fillon is the calm.

The prime minister heads the government and is in charge of carrying out policy while the president has traditionally had a more hands-off role, overseeing government without necessarily being involved in daily details.

Sarkozy, however, has said he wants to play a more active role during his five-year term.

"The people have entrusted me with a mandate. I will fulfil it. I will fulfil it scrupulously," Sarkozy said in his inaugural speech after taking over from Jacques Chirac on Wednesday.

To do that, he needs to secure a majority in June's parliamentary election or face 'cohabiting' with a left-wing government, which would compromise his reform agenda and limit his role to little more than handling foreign affairs and defense.

France's Future Cabinet

An IPSOS poll on Wednesday put support for his UMP party at 40%, an improvement of 1.5 points compared to the last election in 2002, which the right won. The opposition Socialists and their allies were roughly unchanged at 28%.

Fillon's openness to negotiation with the unions is regarded as a key asset that will be crucial in implementing reforms.

Union leaders have said the fact Sarkozy won 53% of the vote in the May 6 presidential run-off ballot did not mean they could be steamrolled into accepting his program.

Sarkozy is set to name a slimmed-down cabinet of 15 full ministers on Friday, half of them women, and French media said it could hold its first session that afternoon.

The cabinet line-up remains largely unclear. However, popular left-winger Bernard Kouchner appeared set to become foreign minister, a move that ties in with Sarkozy's pledge to focus on human rights.

The new president has vowed to move quickly to implement his campaign promises but will want to avoid a repeat of last year's botched youth labour reforms, which Villepin was forced to withdraw after nationwide protests.