Eager French ministers rush to work ahead of polls

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PARIS, May 22 (Reuters) Taking its lead from the country's workaholic President Nicolas Sarkozy, the new French cabinet has launched a blitz of visits and policy pronouncements designed to impress voters ahead of June legislative elections.

Sarkozy, who in his former role as interior minister established a reputation for battling on all fronts at the same time, only unveiled his new cabinet on Friday.

But already ministers have unveiled plans for wide-ranging talks on the environment and education, travelled to Brussels, visited a prison, talked about the 2008 budget and outlined plans for wage parity.

''Obviously it is done with the legislative elections in mind,'' Emmanuel Le Masson, a professor at the Universite de la Mediterranee in Aix-en-Provence, said of the burst of activity and the radio and television blitz.

''But we also knew he would do reforms quickly.'' Sarkozy was elected on May 6 with a strong mandate to forge ahead with reform in sensitive areas such as the labour market, pensions and education.

Legislative elections take place on June 10 and 17, and Sarkozy's ruling UMP party is expected to increase majority in parliament and give fresh impetus to Sarkozy's pledge to bring real change to France's hidebound economy.

The wave of reform announcements, combined with Sarkozy's decision to appoint several Socialists and a centrist to key positions in the government, are seen as part of a strategy to win over voters in the legislative elections.

''All weekend, the ministers have gone to the front line to show that they were already at work,'' Le Monde daily wrote.

WOOING UNIONS The government's ability to actually implement reforms remains limited until the outcome of the June 17 vote is known.

But with polls showing the conservatives set to retain a large working majority, ministers are confidently drafting bills that could be passed in a special summer session of parliament.

Sarkozy set the tone himself, meeting unions and the head of employers group Medef within days of his election and even before taking office, to discuss reforming the labour market and curbing strikes by some public sector workers.

Yesterday, he laid out his plans for large-scale talks on the country's environment policy, today he visited a hospital in northern France. On Wednesday he will travel to Brussels to outline his vision for an EU mini-treaty.

His ministers followed suit. Justice Minister Rachida Dati visited a prison within hours of her appointment and visited court officers that weekend.

Education Minister Xavier Darcos will meet unions today to discuss controversial changes to the system of school catchment areas.

Other talks are in the pipeline. Work and Social Affairs Minister Xavier Bertrand said today the government wanted to ensure equal pay between men and women within two years, calling for talks later this year to see where the problems lay.

But some cracks in Sarkozy's multi-party government are already starting to show.

Martin Hirsch, a leftist former head of a homeless person's association who was appointed as a high-commissioner against poverty, has made it clear he did not approve of Sarkozy's plan to raise some health care charges.


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