Chirac to reassert battered authority in TV interview

26th June 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, June 26, 2006 (AFP) - French President Jacques Chirac was set Monday to throw his weight behind his embattled Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, as he sets the course for the final months of his presidency in a rare televised interview.

PARIS, June 26, 2006 (AFP) - French President Jacques Chirac was set Monday to throw his weight behind his embattled Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, as he sets the course for the final months of his presidency in a rare televised interview.

Chirac — whose authority has been badly undermined by a series of blows to his government — will appear on the main evening news for the first time since mass protests over an unpopular jobs reform gripped the country in April.

The French president is widely expected to stand by his beleaguered protégé Villepin, who faces mounting opposition within his own camp, and to firmly rule out a government reshuffle 10 months ahead of presidential elections.

Announced late Sunday, Chirac's surprise TV appearance comes just three weeks ahead of the president's traditional address to the nation, on France's national holiday on July 14.

Accused by critics of taking a back seat during the government's recent troubles — Chirac's move is seen a bid to restore order in the ruling UMP party ranks as the campaign for next year's elections gets underway.

Officials said that Chirac intends to "outline the actions he will pursue in the coming months."

Chirac "will answer the questions of the French people and recall certain principles and groundrules" amid the "political agitation gripping the country a year before the presidential election," they said.

Asked about a possible government reshuffle, officials at the presidency said Sunday it "was not the subject of the television programme and has never been on the cards" as far as Chirac was concerned.

The president is also set to outline government policy on several sensitive industrial affairs — from the merger of steel giants Mittal and Arcelor, to the troubles of the European space and defence group EADS and the merger of state-controlled Gaz de France (GDF) and the energy and utilities group Suez.

From the stinging rejection of the European constitution and the suburban riots of last November to the job reform crisis of the spring, Chirac's authority has been seriously eroded in the past year, his popularity rating sinking to just 29 percent.

His prime minister Villepin — who initially enjoyed widespread support — has seen his popularity plunge and was forced to fight off calls to resign after his contested youth labour reform sparked a popular revolt.

Since then he has been dragged into a political corruption scandal, accused — he says unfairly — of ordering a secret enquiry into his rival Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

Only 26 percent of the public now approve of his action in government, polls show.

Villepin's position was damaged further last week after he verbally attacked the opposition Socialist Party leader in parliament who had criticised the government's handling of the crisis at the European defence company EADS.

Only a minority of deputies from the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) came to Villepin's defence during the clash — for which he was later forced to apologise — confirming his increasing isolation within the party.

Many conservatives fear their chances at next year's elections are being wrecked by a man whose sole qualification — they say — is his relationship with Chirac.

But despite growing calls for Villepin's replacement, the situation is complicated by the diminishing time-window as the government's mandate expires and by the lack of any obvious alternative.

Acclaimed by most UMP deputies as their best hope for 2007, Sarkozy has no interest in taking the post — and every interest in distancing himself ever further from the Chirac-Villepin tandem's troubled "fin de regime."

Copyright AFP

Subject: French News

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