International diplomacy can be a rough-and-tumble world, ripe with jujitsu fake-outs, illegal tackles, and plenty of grappling in the scrum. In the end, it all proved too much for the left-wing humanitarian Bernard Kouchner, whose appointment as President Nicolas Sarkozy's foreign minister started out with so much promise, but ended up with him watching from the sidelines. So perhaps it makes sense that Kouchner's newly-appointed replacement, Michèle Alliot-Marie, is a devout student of rugby.
The 64-year-old Gaullist is more than just another passive fan of the game. The normally austere MAM, as she is known in France, revealed in a rare informal television appearance in the mid-1980s that she had nearly been kicked out of school when she was young for converting the female handball squad into a rugby team. "I think that I'd still be able to make a pass," she noted. Given her steely demeanor -- she often comes across as downright unbreakable -- it isn't impossible to imagine MAM taking a few hits on the rugby pitch. But perhaps it's her innate sense of the game's rules (her father was an international rugby referee) that has served her so well in the subtler but often much dirtier game of politics.
Alliot-Marie has embraced another pastime traditionally seen as the exclusive domain of men. She was France's first woman to head a major political party -- the conservative Rally for the Republic that oversaw the reelection of President Jacques Chirac in 2002 and was later folded into the Union for a Popular Movement that drove Nicolas Sarkozy's successful 2007 presidential candidacy.
She has also shattered a number of other glass ceilings. With her new appointment, plus other stints as head of the defense, justice and interior ministries, she has scored the first ever ministerial "grand slam," overseeing all four of the big-power ministries. In 2007, Forbes magazine ranked her as the 11th most powerful woman on Earth. With France now assuming the rotating presidency of the G-20 and Sarkozy looking to the international arena to restore his much-tarnished brand at home, Alliot-Marie's profile is likely to rise to even greater heights.
On Nov. 17, Sarkozy's third and most explicitly conservative government held its inaugural Council of Ministers, the first productive gathering of his new government. Chosen with an eye focused on presidential elections less than 18 months from now, Sarkozy has sought to project a new vitality, but the French are skeptical of his latest reshuffle. Approximately two-thirds of the electorate lacks confidence in the new government out of the gate, and nearly nine in 10 believe that Sarkozy's policies will continue unchanged. Yet a majority -- 53 percent -- continues to have a positive view of Alliot-Marie, who has notably avoided implication in an array of scandals and court investigations that dogged Chirac and Sarkozy.