France plays down talk of Sarkozy split with PM

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PARIS, Sep 12 (Reuters) The French government today denied a rift between President Nicolas Sarkozy and Prime Minister Francois Fillon after Sarkozy appeared to rebuke his premier for comments on the sensitive issue of pensions.

''I didn't have the feeling that there was the slightest tension between the president and the prime minister,'' spokesman Laurent Wauquiez told reporters after a cabinet meeting.

Fillon apparently sparked Sarkozy's displeasure at the weekend by unexpectedly declaring that the government was ready to launch a reform of special privileges on some public sector pensions as soon as the president gave the green light.

The comment prompted union leaders to pledge strong opposition to any plans made without their involvement, raising the prospect of the kind of strikes and demonstrations that have derailed previous reform efforts.

In a speech yesterday, Sarkozy said he intended to reform the rules, as he has long pledged to do, but pointedly added: ''A bit of order doesn't hurt in finding a solution to a problem.'' Relations between Sarkozy and Fillon have been under close scrutiny as the president, ubiquitous in the media since his election in May, has totally overshadowed ministers even in daily issues traditionally the prime minister's domain.

DISCREET BACKROOM OPERATOR Fillon has rejected accusations that he has been brushed aside, but he has had to put up with widespread press mockery for standing by obediently as Sarkozy holds yet another news conference on policy issues ranging from taxes to sex offenders.

Under the French system, the president is in overall charge of the nation's affairs but appoints a prime minister to run the government and implement policy.

Fillon, a discreet backroom operator and one of the coordinators of Sarkozy's successful election campaign, is not naturally one to seek the limelight and he said recently that his office was working ''in the shadows''.

But his patience has been sorely tested by the hyperactive Sarkozy, who was quoted recently describing the prime minister as an ''associate'', a label widely interpreted as a put-down for the head of his government.

The climate in government has not been improved by persistent media talk of a reshuffle in January and reports that Sarkozy is unhappy with the performance of some ministers.

The usually well-informed satirical weekly Le Canard Enchaine quoted Sarkozy as calling some of them ''zeroes''.

With growing doubts over France's economic growth prospects, the structural reforms promised by Sarkozy during the campaign are likely to become increasingly sensitive, but so far the president still enjoys more public trust than his subordinate.

An opinion poll commissioned for Paris Match magazine this week showed a 5-point dip in Sarkozy's approval ratings to 62 per cent but showed Fillon falling 9 points to 53 per cent.

REUTERS SG RAI2039

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