* Foreign Minister Fabius takes on trade, tourism portfolios
* Fabius made "economic diplomacy" one of his priorities
* Trade deficit stands at about 61 bln euros
By John Irish
PARIS, April 2 French Foreign Minister Laurent
Fabius, who has stood out in an otherwise unpopular government
for his firm handling of international crises, is to take on
responsibility for improving the country's weak trade
performance, diplomatic sources said.
In a cabinet reshuffle on Wednesday, Fabius has been handed
the task of reducing the trade deficit and developing external
business as part of an expanded portfolio to boost growth
opportunities overseas, the sources told Reuters.
While President Francois Hollande's ratings are near rock
bottom, Fabius has built up his gravitas with France taking a
leading role in crises from Mali to Syria. Now he has won the
greater economic role for his ministry that he had coveted.
"The foreign ministry is the crisis ministry. There's an
economic crisis, a trade deficit crisis and that needs to be
resolved," said an official familiar with the situation. "It's
logical. Economic diplomacy has been his priority."
Fabius, 67, is the most experienced minister in Hollande's
new Socialist government, having become the youngest French
prime minister of the modern era at the age of 37 in 1984.
Since becoming foreign minister in 2012 he has tried to
shift more diplomatic focus towards winning contracts in markets
where French firms are traditionally weak. This brought him into
conflict with the finance and trade ministries which often
duplicated his visits.
Fabius's new remit means he could be in charge of defending
French interests in negotiations with Washington over a
high-stakes free-trade between agreement between the United
States and the European Union.
France's trade deficit, which hit a record of 74 billion
euros ($102 billion) in 2011 has fallen to about 61 billion
euros but remains one of the starkest signs of French firms'
loss of competitiveness on international markets.
Hollande offered in December to phase out 30 billion euros
in charges on companies by 2017 to help them regain lost market
share, marking a shift in policy in the euro zone's second
Paris has said that a strong euro weighs on its exports,
which are driven by sales of Airbus planes,
pharmaceuticals, and farm and food products, by making them less
competitive against rivals using weaker currencies.
A government source said Fleur Pellerin, who had done well
in her previous post as digital economy minister, would report
to Fabius as trade, tourism and European affairs minister.
Fabius has had a rivalry with Hollande, whom he once
nicknamed "wild strawberry" for hiding in the undergrowth, but
has stayed clear of gaffes and quarrels that engulfed the
In doing so, Fabius has quietly increased his influence
within the government. He nominated ambassadors to develop
business interests ranging from former conservative Prime
Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin in Algeria to Socialist
heavyweight Martine Aubry for China.
Fabius has set his sights on breaking former U.S. Secretary
of State Hillary Clinton's record of circling the world 38 times
during her 2009-2013 tenure. In almost two years, he has managed
more than 18, visiting China seven times.
He has also targeted markets relatively untapped by French
firms ranging from Mongolia to Kazakhstan and Panama. He is due
to travel to Cuba and Latin America before the summer.
As well as trade, Fabius will also take control of tourism
where he has already made it easier for visitors from rapidly
growing new markets. "Fabius managed to get visa issuance times
reduced to just two days for the Chinese, knowing that even a
fraction more Chinese visitors to France would significantly
boost the coffers," said the official.
($1 = 0.7249 Euros)
(Additional reporting by Gregory Blachier; editing by David