Chirac to sacrifice Raffarinafter 'non' to EU treaty

18th April 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, April 18 (AFP) - Infighting over the EU constitution erupted in the French government Monday, amid clear signals that Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin will lose his job if opponents of the text win a referendum next month as polls currently predict.

PARIS, April 18 (AFP) - Infighting over the EU constitution erupted in the French government Monday, amid clear signals that Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin will lose his job if opponents of the text win a referendum next month as polls currently predict.  

Tensions over the continuing failure of the government's "yes" campaign spilled over at a weekly ministerial breakfast meeting with what officials described as a "very violent argument" between Raffarin and Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin.  

Raffarin was reportedly furious with remarks made by Villepin in a radio interview Sunday that were openly critical of the way the government has handled the run-up to the May 29 vote and hinted at the prime minister's approaching replacement.  

More than 15 opinion polls over the last month have shown that the "no" camp will win the referendum on the European constitution with a majority of between 51 and 55 percent - an outcome which would have enormous repercussions inside both France and the European Union.  

According to an official who witnessed the incident at the prime minister's residence Monday morning, Villepin told Raffarin that what he had said the day before had been under orders - in other words, that his message had been authorised by President Jacques Chirac.  

Villepin - a staunch Chirac loyalist - held a private meeting with the president early Sunday, before telling Europe 1 radio that there will be a change of political direction after the May vote, whichever side wins.  

"You don't have to have second sight. You just have to look around. We will need policies that are much more determined, bolder and more socially-conscious ... in order to take into account the feelings, aspirations and frustrations which are being expressed," Villepin said.  

The interior minister, who made his name as foreign minister in the run-up to the Iraq war, also dropped the latest in a series of hints that he would himself like to take over from Raffarin as prime minister - even though he has never once stood for elected office.  

"All one's life one prepares to take on certain tasks, which are sometimes difficult or unpredictable ... After that it is destiny - it is those above us who decide," he said.  

Chirac said during a television debate last Thursday that he will not personally resign if the constitution is rejected by the electorate, but the dismissal of a prime minister is the standard way for a French president to extricate himself from political difficulties.   The opposition Socialist Party (PS) revelled in the ministerial squabbling Monday, with spokeswoman Annick Lepetit saying that "the government evidently no longer trusts itself."   

Charles Pasqua, a former Gaullist interior minister and leading campaigner against the constitution, said Villepin's remarks were "the beginning of an answer to the question: what happens if the 'no' wins?"  

Raffarin took office in 2002 with the reputation of an economic liberal and has succeeded in passing reforms of the pension and social security systems, but his popularity ratings are among the lowest ever recorded for a prime minister. The latest, for a Sunday newspaper, put him at 29 percent.  

Hopes that Chirac could revitalise the fortunes of the "yes" camp in last week's two-hour appearance before a group of 80 young people have come to nothing, with 53 percent of the public still intending to vote against the constitution, according to a poll in Liberation newspaper Monday.  

The biggest growth in support for the "no" vote has been on the political left, with the PS now evenly split between the two camps. By contrast voters for Chirac's ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) are largely in favour of the constitution.  

Rejection of the constitution is seen as the by-product of a widespread social malaise in France, feeding on high unemployment, fears of competition from foreign low-cost economies, and a chronic mistrust of the political elites in Paris.  

Drawn up by former French president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the constitution is meant to simplify decision-making in the expanding European bloc but it must first be adopted by all 25 member states. A rejection in so important a country as France would throw the whole process into confusion.  

Inside France a "no" vote would gravely undermine the standing of Chirac's government. But it would also set off a bitter internal war among the Socialists, whose leadership is campaigning in favour of the constitution.

© AFP

Subject: French News

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