February 10, 2016 / 10:55 AM / 2 years ago

French Foreign Minister Fabius leaves office, wider reshuffle due

French Foreign Affairs Minister Laurent Fabius arrives at the Elysee Palace in Paris, France, February 8, 2016.Philippe Wojazer

PARIS (Reuters) - French Foreign Minister Laurent Fabius said on Wednesday he was leaving the government ahead of a reshuffle President Francois Hollande is set to announce in coming days to reshape his team ahead of the 2017 presidential elections.

The reshuffle comes at a time when a beleaguered Hollande is suffering a fresh drop in popularity and deep discontent within his party over contested plans to strip French citizenship from people convicted of terrorism.

"I will be leaving office," Fabius told reporters, adding that a wider reshuffle, which has been in the works for months, would be announced later this week.

Fabius, 69, who played a prominent role in sealing an international deal with Iran limiting its nuclear program and helped broker a global climate change agreement, was picked by Hollande to head the country's top constitutional court.

While it is unclear how widespread the reshuffle will be, speculation is rife over who could join a revamped government in coming days, with Hollande's former prime minister, Jean-Marc Ayrault, or former partner, Environment Minister Segolene Royal, tipped as possible replacements for Fabius.

A lot of attention will also focus on whether former investment banker Emmanuel Macron, who has been the face of reforms for France's European partners but has irritated many of his government colleagues, will get a bigger portfolio.

Manuel Valls is set to stay on as prime minister. Hollande is expected to largely stick to his pro-business economic policy even if there could be some changes if rebel Socialists or Green lawmakers were to join his cabinet in a bid to build a wider left-wing alliance to gear up for the presidential election.

Hollande was to be interviewed on French television on Thursday evening, and might give more details.

TIGHT VOTE

Analysts said a reshuffle was unlikely to do much to help his popularity, which has been eroded by a debate on stripping dual nationals of their French passports in case of terrorism convictions - one of the key measures he announced after 130 people were killed by Islamist militants in Paris on November 13.

This is a sensitive time for Hollande who, just over a year ahead of the presidential elections, faces an uphill re-election battle, dogged not only by tense debates over security measures but also anger with rampant unemployment of 10.6 percent.

The lower house of parliament on Wednesday endorsed a strongly disputed bill on stripping those convicted of terrorism of their French passport by 317 votes against 199.

While that will be a relief for the government, the issue is far from over as the measure needs be approved by the senate and then by three-fifths of votes from both houses of parliament, a process likely to take several weeks.

A third of the Socialist lawmakers who cast their votes on Wednesday voted against the measure and some others abstained, highlighting divisions over the issue. Former president Nicolas Sarkozy's conservatives are also divided.

Fabius, who was France's youngest prime minister in the mid-1980s, had been widely expected to change jobs since the end of last year. He said he would enter his new role in early March.

He is due to stay on as chair of U.N. climate talks until late 2016, monitoring implementation of the agreement to shift from fossil fuels to cleaner energies.

Additional reporting by Elizabeth Pineau; Writing by Ingrid Melander; Editing by Alister Doyle and Mark Heinrich

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