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France's Macron poaches conservative veteran in coup ahead of EU elections

1 min

French President Emmanuel Macron poached former Nicolas Sarkozy minister Rachida Dati to join his new government, a surprise move that will further weaken his conservative opponents and signals his desire to bring political experience to his cabinet.

Rachida Dati, Philippe Lopez/Pool via Reuters

French President Emmanuel Macron poached former Nicolas Sarkozy minister Rachida Dati to join his new government, a surprise move that will further weaken his conservative opponents and signals his desire to bring political experience to his cabinet.

Dati, a vocal former justice minister who enjoys strong name recognition in France, was named culture minister in Macron's new government, which also confirmed heavyweights Bruno Le Maire and Gerald Darmanin for the finance and interior portfolios.

"It's a huge political coup, no one had seen that coming," former Sarkozy minister Roselyne Bachelot said on BFM TV. "She's hugely pugnacious, she's popular, and she's popular with common people."

By poaching a big name from conservative ranks, Macron moves away from a previous tendency to put technocrats in cabinet roles and shows the president is gearing up for political battle ahead of European parliament elections in June.

His government now also leans even more clearly to the right, in another sign he wants to take on a resurgent far right in the elections just five months away.

The first batch of ministers announced by his office on Thursday, which also includes MEP Stephane Sejourne as foreign minister, comes after Macron named rising political star Gabriel Attal as his prime minister earlier this week.

Dati, 58, who comes from humble, North African origins, was until now the head of the conservative opposition at Paris City Hall, meaning Macron also took out one potential rival to conquer the Paris mayorship, currently in Socialist hands.

European Central Bank President Christine Lagarde, who was on French TV on Thursday evening, did not deny that she had turned down the foreign ministry. "I would be very honoured to serve France again, but I'm on a mission," she said.

Sejourne, who was named instead, is one of the "Macron boys" who helped Macron win the presidency in 2017 and was most recently his member in the European parliament, confirming the president is focused on turning around his fortunes for the vote.

Opinion polls show Macron's party is trailing that of Marine Le Pen by up to 10 percentage points for an election which is crucial if Macron wants to remain influential in EU policymaking.

Former government spokesman Olivier Veran, another pugnacious debater, could head the list of candidates for the European election, French media said. His office said it could neither confirm nor deny those reports.

By Michel Rose and Elizabeth Pineau

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