Fillon, right, is more popular with the electorate and is widely seen as more competent figure than Sarkozy, left [AFP]
Nicolas Sarkozy, the French president, has reappointed Francois Fillon as prime minister in a ministerial reshuffle aimed at shoring up his position 18 months before the next presidential election.
Bernard Kouchner, the foreign minister, was replaced by Michele Alliot-Marie, while Alain Juppe, the former right-wing prime minister, returned to government to take over defence.
Sarkozy said in June he would reshuffle his cabinet once his flagship pension reform, which cleared its final hurdle last week, was in place.
Christine Lagarde, the finance minister and Brice Hortefeux, the interior minister, remained in their former jobs, while several more Sarkozy loyalists were promoted on Sunday.
Jean-Louis Borloo, the number two figure in the outgoing government and until recent days a frontrunner to become prime minister himself, announced he was stepping down.
Along with Borloo, Herve Morin, the defence minister, also left office, as did the cabinet's best known ethnic minority figures, Fadela Amara, the cities minister, and Rama Yade, the sports minister.
Fillon, whose popularity ratings regularly exceed those of the increasingly unpopular president, said he would focus his attention as prime minister on employment and the economy.
"After three-and-a-half years of brave reforms, carried out despite a severe global economic and financial crisis, I am starting ... a new phase with determination which will allow our country to strengthen the growth of the economy to help jobs, promote solidarity and safeguard the security of all French people," Fillon said in a statement.
The changes come at a time when Sarkozy is trying to shore up his core support base, address voter gloom over the economy and improve his dismal ratings before the 2012 election.
After a short period when commentators thought Fillon would be replaced, Sarkozy had been widely expected to reappoint a man who has been a key aide and who was behind the campaign that swept the president to power in 2007.
Speaking to Al Jazeera in Paris, Patrice de Beer, the former editor of Le Monde newspaper, said: "When he [Sarkozy] decided about that reshuffle, a long time ago, before summer ... he thought this would reinforce him, his position and would help him get rid of Francois Fillon, who is far more popular than he is and who would be the candidate for the traditional conservative.
"But his [Sarkozy's] standing in opinion polls is so low he has to rely on Fillon to consolidate his conservative [base]."
Dominique Paille, a spokesman for Sarkozy's ruling UMP party, told iTele, a French television channel, that it was more important for the country to continue with reforms in the works than have a change in direction.
"Nicolas Sarkozy has not opted for a new course. He has said that the rest of his mandate, the 18 months that will run until spring 2012, would be dedicated to the pursuit of reforms," Paille said.
Sarkozy has emerged victorious from a drawn-out battle with unions over pension reform but remains deeply unpopular with approval ratings below 30 per cent.
Fillon is more popular with the electorate and is widely seen as more calm and competent figure than Sarkozy.
Opposition politicians were quick to criticise Sarkozy for taking almost five months to decide on his reshuffle only to end up keeping the same prime minister.
"This means in any case that the same politics will continue," Jean-Marc Ayrault, president of the opposition Socialist party in the National Assembly, told LCI television.
"When you are president, you should have a bit more respect for the French people because ministers ... have had their minds elsewhere for months instead of concentrating on France's problems," he said.
After Sarkozy stood firm through a series of strikes and protests to push through legislation to raise the retirement age by two years, speculation briefly flared the he might replace Fillon with Borloo.
It was thought that Borloo's man-of-the-people image might have improved relations with unions.
Fillon was elected to parliament in 1981 and since 1993 has held various government posts including heading the labour, social affairs, education and research, and post and telecommunications ministries.
As labour minister in 2003, he shepherded an important change to the pension system through parliament, despite union protests, obliging civil servants to contribute for as long as private sector employees to qualify for a pension.
Source: Al Jazeera and agencies