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Sarkozy takes his government on the road

By John Lichfield in Paris

The capital city of France will move 300 miles to the east today. For the first time in more than three decades, a French government will hold its weekly cabinet meeting outside Paris.

President Nicolas Sarkozy, intent on being seen to be a different kind of leader, will convene the cabinet, not in the Elysée Palace but in Strasbourg on the German border.

The Alsatian capital – hosting a cabinet meeting for the first time in its history – has been chosen for several reasons. Officially, President Sarkozy wishes to underline the European commitment of his government by meeting in the home, or one of the homes, of the European Parliament.

The more pressing reasons are domestic. President Sarkozy racked up his highest scores in the presidential election last April and May in the two Alsatian départements of Haut-Rhin and Bas-Rhin.

Senior Alsatian members of his centre-right party, the Union Pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), expected some kind of reward when the President formed his first government. They were outraged when the only Alsatian minister chosen by M. Sarkozy was one of their local enemies, the Socialist Mayor of Mulhouse, Jean-Marie Bockel.

Making Strasbourg the capital of France for a day is M. Sarkozy's peace offering. In an interview with the local newspaper Les Dernières Nouvelles d'Alsace, he said: "France is not just Paris. Strasbourg is the capital of a region ... bordering on Germany, which is important for us. It is the capital of Europe."

Belgians and Eurocrats will be surprised to find that M. Sarkozy seems not to have heard of Brussels. Other away days for the French government will follow, starting with a cabinet meeting in Corsica in October.

The President, the Prime Minister, François Fillon, and their ministers will meet this morning in the Prefecture (national government headquarters) in the centre of Strasbourg.

M. Sarkozy convened a restricted ministerial meeting there last night on security issues with the Justice Minister, Rachida Dati, and the Interior Minister, Michèle Alliot-Marie. The uncovering of the suspected al-Qa'ida-linked terrorist plot just across the Rhine in Germany was expected to top the agenda.

The last French president to take his government on the road was Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, who convened cabinet meetings in Lyons, Evry and Lille in 1974 to 1976.

Bringing the government to the people was one of the promises made by M. Sarkozy during his election campaign. He also promised to open his government to other parties, something he has done to devastating political effect.

M. Bockel, Minister for Overseas Development, and for the French-speaking world, is just one of half a dozen Socialists who have been given ministerial posts or places on government commissions of inquiry.

Their willingness to join the government has deepened the rifts and in-fighting within the main opposition party. It has also caused great bitterness within M. Sarkozy's own party, not least in Alsace.

Jean-Luc Reitzer, a deputy from Haut-Rhin, told the President a few weeks ago that regional anger at M. Bockel's appointment was a "deep malaise, not just a fit of temper". He said that Alsace expected the President to offer the region "a very strong gesture of affection and attachment".

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