It's day 100: Is your confidence restored yet?

8th September 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Sept 8 (AFP) - As President Jacques Chirac spent his sixth day in hospital Thursday, his loyal prime minister Dominique de Villepin was marking his hundredth day in office buoyed by opinion polls that show his popularity making steady progress.

PARIS, Sept 8 (AFP) - As President Jacques Chirac spent his sixth day in hospital Thursday, his loyal prime minister Dominique de Villepin was marking his hundredth day in office buoyed by opinion polls that show his popularity making steady progress.

Appointed at the end of May, de Villepin, 51, set himself the deadline of 100 days to "restore the confidence" of a country traumatised by the shock defeat of the EU's proposed constitution in a national referendum.

Three months later -- and with few bright spots on the economic horizon -- commentators said the prime minister may have failed in the task of boosting public morale, but he has pulled off the separate trick of establishing himself as a serious political contender.

Widely criticised at the time of his nomination for never having stood in an election, the suave former diplomat and adviser to President Chirac has played a savvy hand -- energetically urging a policy of "change through continuity" and targeting unemployment as his number one priority.

As a result this week saw his approval rating move into the positive for the first time since he came to power -- with 55 percent in a Paris-Match survey commending his record so far. Some 56 percent said his first 100 days had been a success.

The sudden illness of the president, which has seen Chirac in hospital since Friday, has further propelled Villepin onto the centre-stage -- on Wednesday he chaired the weekly cabinet meeting -- and he is increasingly mentioned as a likely contender for the presidential elections of 2007.

"From diplomat and princely councillor, Dominique de Villepin has shown he is also a politician. He can look far and aim high, without ceasing to spy, calculate, arrange and decide," said Ouest-France newspaper. "In short -- with a style that is his own -- he has given the impression of knowing how to govern."

"The first 100 days have done little to change the morale of those polled, which remains at rock bottom. So Dominique de Villepin has failed in his bet to restore confidence. On the other hand where he has fully succeeded is in imposing himself on the political class," said L'Alsace newspaper.

The Paris-Match poll had more good news for Villepin -- indicating that for the first time he has taken a lead in the "good opinion" stakes over his arch-rival for the Chirac succession: the highly ambitious interior minister and ruling party chief Nicolas Sarkozy.

With Chirac's retirement in 2007 looking increasingly likely, the next 18 months look set to be dominated by bitter infighting between two men who would both like to inherit the mantle of leader of the centre-right.

While Villepin is identified as Chirac's favoured heir -- he remains deeply loyal to the president and will only run for the presidency if Chirac bows out from a third race -- Sarkozy is the rebel in the family, who openly blames Chirac's consensus style for the problems currently facing France.

Villepin's advantage is that he speaks in more reassuring terms than Sarkozy -- praising France "social model" for example, and avoiding the inflammatory language that alienates many from the interior minister. For an anxious public, Villepin's verbal balm is easier to take than the harsh Sarkozy medicine.

The prime minister's difficulty is that he is the man most exposed if there is no improvement in the country's fortunes over the next year and a half. It is no coincidence that in the history of modern France no sitting prime minister has ever once acceded to the top position of power.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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