At end of year one, Villepin's job still on the line

1st June 2006, Comments 0 comments

CHARTRES, France, June 1, 2006 (AFP) - France's embattled Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin defended his record after a year in office Thursday as a poll showed three quarters of the public no longer trust him to run the country.

CHARTRES, France, June 1, 2006 (AFP) - France's embattled Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin defended his record after a year in office Thursday as a poll showed three quarters of the public no longer trust him to run the country.

Villepin, who has faced repeated calls to resign over a dirty tricks scandal rocking the centre-right government, said he was determined to stay in office — and to put the run-up to next year's presidential election to good use.

"The trials of recent months have changed me," he told a news conference in Chartres, southwest of the capital.

"They have also reinforced my determination to serve the French people."

Defending his government's record on the economy, he highlighted encouraging growth figures and a recent fall in unemployment — which dropped last month to 9.3 percent of the workforce — as evidence that its policies were working.

Villepin attributed predicted growth of 2 to 2.5 percent for this year to the injection of state funds into the economy through privatisations and a control of public spending.

"We have made the necessary choices to prepare for the future," said the prime minister, who also pledged to launch a national debt reduction plan in the coming months.

By next year's election, Villepin said he wanted to "present the French people with a completely renovated social model" and urged the ruling UMP party to stand united in defending "its record, its project and its beliefs".

Appointed by President Jacques Chirac in the wake of France's rejection of the European constitution last May, Villepin faced his first major trial in March when millions took to the streets in protest at a youth job reform plan.

Asked about the aborted reform, Villepin admitted he had "moved too fast", although he said "strong and courageous measures" were needed to cut France's disproportionately high youth unemployment rate.

Since the job law revolt, Villepin has been further damaged by a complex political scandal involving an alleged smear campaign against his arch-rival, UMP chief and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

Last month he had to fight off calls for his resignation after being accused of asking a spy chief — on Chirac's orders — to secretly check whether bogus claims of money-laundering made against Sarkozy were true.

Both Chirac and Villepin deny the claims, which are being investigated as part of a defamation inquiry.

Although the pressure has lifted slightly since the height of the scandal a few weeks ago, observers believe any new revelations in the Clearstream affair could force Chirac to sacrifice his protege Villepin.

Villepin's approval rating sank four points last month to 20 percent, with 77 percent of the public saying they do not trust him, according to a poll by TNS-Sofres published Wednesday in Le Figaro newspaper.

Chirac's own approval rating fell to 17 percent — the worst score of any president under the Fifth Republic, founded in 1958 — according to the same survey of 1,000 people conducted on May 22-23.

Within his own party, Villepin — an unelected former diplomat — is being increasingly challenged as lawmakers fear his unpopularity could destroy the centre-right's chances in next year's polls.

On Wednesday, UMP lawmakers openly rebelled against him by chanting the name of Social Cohesion Minister Jean-Louis Borloo — tipped as possible successor — during a debate in parliament.

"Enough is enough. It is time for a change of prime minister," said one UMP lawmaker under cover of anonymity.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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