Split France kept waiting for government of 'new impulse'

2nd June 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, June 2 (AFP) - French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin continued behind the scenes negotiations to form a government Thursday, four days after the crisis caused by the rejection of the EU constitution, amid intense debate over the future of France's social and economic model.

PARIS, June 2 (AFP) - French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin continued behind the scenes negotiations to form a government Thursday, four days after the crisis caused by the rejection of the EU constitution, amid intense debate over the future of France's social and economic model.  

The prime minister, who took office on Tuesday, held two hours of talks at the Elysee palace with President Jacques Chirac over the make-up of the new cabinet. An announcement was expected later Thursday or Friday.  

Several ministers from the outgoing government of Jean-Pierre Raffarin were likely to keep their places, including Michele Alliot-Marie at defence, Thierry Breton at finance and Jean-Louis Borloo at social cohesion, insiders said.  

Philippe Douste-Blazy, a cardiologist and outgoing minister of health, was tipped as the new foreign minister, replacing Michel Barnier.  

The only certainty was the inclusion of Nicolas Sarkozy, the powerful head of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) and likely presidential candidate for the next elections in 2007. He was to return to the interior ministry where he served from 2002 to 2004, according to insiders.  

The change of government was triggered by the debacle of Sunday's referendum on the European constitution, in which voters took out their anger over unemployment, economic insecurity and the Brussels technocracy to inflict a stinging defeat for their ruling elite.  

Chirac immediately promised a "new impulse" focussing on job creation, and in a television interview Wednesday Villepin reiterated that his government's priority would be the "battle for employment."  

Promising to have produced results within 100 days - by early September - the prime minister said it was necessary to "remove the obstacles, remove the difficulties which exist in the labour market - both on the side of business and the side of job-seekers."  

Asked if he supported a shift to looser rules in the jobs market such as have helped bring down unemployment in Britain, Villepin said he was "a pragmatist deeply attached to the French model which reconciles solidarity with freedom of initiative."  

The focus on unemployment following Sunday's referendum has raised intensive debate over whether the so-called French social model of high welfare protection and tough restrictions on hiring and firing can ever bring down the country's current rate of 10.2 percent.  

Sarkozy - who is set to be number two in the government - openly calls for radical liberalisation of the system, but Villepin and Chirac remain wedded to the post-war model and fear massive social protests if they tinker with it, analysts said.  

Left-wingers who campaigned against the EU constitution warned the government that Sunday's no" vote was directed against "Anglo-Saxon" economics and that any attempt to dilute the French welfare system would be seen as a provocation.  

"Dominique de Villepin runs the risk of a serious social and political crisis if ... the massive vote against Europe's liberal direction results in the surrender of more social rights, especially on the labour code," said Henri Emmanuelli of the Socialist party.  

The left-wing Liberation newspaper lamented that the loss of the constitution could backfire for "no" voters by leaving Europe vulnerable to British-style liberal economic policies.  

"Now that the road of political union is cut, the only Plan B that will emerge for Europe is Tony Blair's - a vast free-trade zone with as little regulation as possible," it said. 

© AFP

Subject: French News

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