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Meet France’s Mr. Fix-It

2 minute read

Jean-Louis Borloo has made a career of tackling lost causes. As a Parisian lawyer he rescued failing businesses. In 1988 he revived a bankrupt soccer team. And as mayor of Valenciennes from 1989 to 2002, he resurrected the moribund former steel town by revamping neighborhoods, attracting a Toyota factory, building a theater, and planning a regional tram whose first rail will be laid this week. Can this miracle worker save France’s embattled conservative government after the party’s rout in last month’s regional elections?

It was evidently with that hope in mind that President Jacques Chirac plucked Jean-Louis Borloo, who turns 53 this week, from a junior minister post to head a new “superministry” for employment, labor and social cohesion in a revamped government. Chirac is hoping the wild-haired, straight-talking populist will serve as a bulwark against voter anger over Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin’s belt tightening, and his failure to generate jobs or mend the social fracture between the country’s affluent classes and its disgruntled masses. Voters put the opposition Socialists in charge of 20 of France’s 21 mainland regions, up from 8 in 1998. “France has clearly expressed a demand for a more social approach,” says Pascal Perrineau, director of the Center for the Study of French Political Life at Sciences Po in Paris. “Borloo is the response.”

Raffarin dutifully resigned after the right’s rout at the polls, but Chirac opted to renominate him and install Nicolas Sarkozy, the most ambitious figure on the French right, as Economics, Finance and Industry Minister. Except for Borloo, a politically unclassifiable figure with no standing in the ruling party, Chirac was largely content to reshuffle loyal followers. Dominique de Villepin moves to the Interior Ministry from foreign affairs, where he has been replaced by European Commissioner Michel Barnier.

The very sameness in the Cabinet puts the incandescent Borloo center stage, but it could also hamper him. Sarkozy, burdened with a huge budget deficit, is unlikely to allow him the renewal projects that won him praise in Valenciennes. “Borloo is a good guy, and he knows his subject,” says Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a former Socialist Finance Minister. “But he won’t be setting the agenda like he did in Valenciennes.” Even for a miracle worker, reviving the popularity of Chirac’s government is a tall order.

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