Amid EU vote havoc Chirac readies government change

30th May 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, May 30 (AFP) - With the defeat of the EU constitution wreaking havoc across the French ruling establishment, President Jacques Chirac on Monday sought to limit the damage from the referendum earthquake by preparing a swift change of government.

PARIS, May 30 (AFP) - With the defeat of the EU constitution wreaking havoc across the French ruling establishment, President Jacques Chirac on Monday sought to limit the damage from the referendum earthquake by preparing a swift change of government.

His authority at rock-bottom after voters ignored his personal appeals for a "yes" vote, the 72-year-old president was drawing on his immense political stamina in order to recover momentum and prevent his last two years in office being ones of terminal decline.

After promising to give "a new and strong impulse to government action," he spent Monday in interviews with senior members of his Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party - and an announcement of a new administration was expected on Tuesday.

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin - who served Chirac loyally for the last three years - was to submit his resignation imminently, insiders said.

But speculation was rife over his replacement. The hottest tip was the 51 year-old Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin, a suave career diplomat who made his name around the world in 2003 when he was the spokesman for French opposition to the war in Iraq.

Villepin, who has been close to Chirac since becoming his cabinet director exactly 10 years ago, has never once stood for elected office - but the appointment of an efficient technocrat could convey the message that the president has heeded public anger with politicians.

Also mentioned as a possible prime minister was Nicolas Sarkozy, Chirac's arch-rival on the right and 50 year-old head of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party.

Sarkozy, who makes no secret of his ambition to be elected president in
2007, champions the cause of radical economic liberalisation and would only agree to be prime minister if he had a free hand to implement his programme, supporters said.

Chirac's instincts veer more to the "social" centre-ground - especially after an electoral upset that was spearheaded by public fears of the free market economy - but he might be tempted to appoint Sarkozy in order to neutralise him in the run-up to the 2007 elections.

As prime minister Sarkozy - currently France's most popular politician - would have to share the blame for the country's ills. At the helm of the UMP he can continue to snipe at the new government, especially if its leader is Villepin - with whom Sarkozy has poisonous relations.

Meanwhile the main opposition Socialist party (PS) was plunged into post-referendum crisis as a result of the rift that split members into opposing pro- and anti- camps.

Party leader Francois Hollande blamed the rejection of the EU constitution on the unpopularity of Chirac's centre-right administration, but his own authority was hugely damaged by the result - a clear majority of PS supporters ignoring his appeal to vote "yes".

Bitter recriminations over the "treason" of former prime minister Laurent Fabius and other backers of the "no" threatened to burst into open warfare, amid fears that the party could break into two reformist and radical halves.

"I feel extremely strongly against all this demagoguery that we heard through the campaign, with certain people trying to surf on public fears," said former finance minister Dominique Strauss-Kahn in a reference to PS "no" campaigners, who he said had a "large share of responsibility" for the defeat.

Fabius, who served as France's youngest prime minister in the 1980s, emerged as the biggest political winner from Sunday's vote - and his chances for a 2007 presidential bid building on his alliance with the radical left have been enhanced.

But the 58 year-old is viewed with contempt by the rest of the PS leadership, who accused him of xenophobia in the campaign for playing on the threat of competition from eastern Europe. And even among his new allies on the radical left, the former centrist is widely suspected of cynical opportunism.

 © AFP

Subject: French News

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