All eyes on Sarkozy as new French government kicks off

3rd June 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, June 3 (AFP) - The new government of French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, formed in the wake of the nation's resounding rejection of the EU constitution, got to work on Friday, keen to win back public trust.

PARIS, June 3 (AFP) - The new government of French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, formed in the wake of the nation's resounding rejection of the EU constitution, got to work on Friday, keen to win back public trust.  

After a 50-minute cabinet meeting, Villepin - who has given himself 100 days to win back the country's confidence - said his team was "at work, mobilized to serve French men and women".  

President Jacques Chirac and the new premier on Thursday named a streamlined cabinet with the charismatic, provocative Nicolas Sarkozy returning as the powerful interior minister and Villepin's number two.  

Chirac dismissed his foreign minister Michel Barnier after Sunday's overwhelming "no" vote to the EU treaty, replacing him with former health minister Philippe Douste-Blazy, a newcomer to the world of global affairs.  

The 31-member cabinet, plus Villepin, has a dozen fewer members than the previous government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin.  

But many key ministers stayed in place, including Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie, Finance Minister Thierry Breton and Social Cohesion Minister Jean-Louis Borloo, prompting scepticism from the press and jeers from the left.  

"Nine new ministers is not exactly a clean sweep," the financial daily La Tribune said in a commentary.  

"Chirac locks down," read the headline of the popular daily Le Parisien, while the left-leaning Liberation went for a play on words with "Sarkommence", meaning "Here we go again", accompanied by a blurry photo of a smiling Sarkozy.  

In an editorial entitled "Plastering over", Liberation lashed out:" In the menage-a-trois that is now ruling the country, Nicolas Sarkozy is the one wearing the pants. Never has a minister been so powerful."  

In a major climb-down for Chirac, the president - whose confidence rating has plummeted to an all-time low of 24 percent - allowed his arch-rival Sarkozy to remain as head of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).  

Sarkozy has made no secret of his desire to replace the 72-year-old Chirac at the Elysee in 2007, and also has a difficult relationship with Villepin, who has long been the president's loyal lieutenant.  

The new team also earned bitter remarks from the outgoing Barnier, who lashed out at the "beheading" of his ex-ministry's team, and from axed education minister Francois Fillon.  

Fillon told Le Monde that by pushing him out of the government, Chirac and Villepin had made him "a campaign director ahead of time" for Sarkozy's 2007 presidential bid.  

Although the prime minister and his number two have pledged to work together to reduce unemployment and reunite a deeply divided nation, many wondered how effective the explosive combination will be.  

"How can there be a new government impetus when the same team is in office with the same jobs?" opposition Socialist party spokeswoman Annick Lepetit told AFP.  

Sarkozy hit the ground running with a visit to the southern city of Perpignan, where tensions between the Arab and Gypsy communities led to unrest following the murders of two North African men.  

"I'm here to do a job and my job is to rid France of hoodlums," Sarkozy told reporters. "And I'm not going to hold back."  

"There will be zero tolerance from now on" for intracommunal violence, he told AFP.   Perhaps the toughest job will go to Douste-Blazy, who will have the task of patching up relations with the rest of the European Union after French voters turned down the EU charter.  

Chirac was to fly to Berlin on Saturday for crisis talks with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder about the future of the bloc's long-cherished constitution.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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