Villepin faces yet another crisis of authority

21st June 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, June 21, 2006 (AFP) - French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin faced a crisis of authority Wednesday after sustaining a torrent of abuse from the opposition, press and even inside his own ruling party accusing him of political incompetence.

PARIS, June 21, 2006 (AFP) - French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin faced a crisis of authority Wednesday after sustaining a torrent of abuse from the opposition, press and even inside his own ruling party accusing him of political incompetence.

The chorus of complaint was triggered by an intemperate outburst Tuesday in the National Assembly during which he broke unwritten parliamentary rules by accusing Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande of cowardice.

Villepin apologised Wednesday. "If some words hurt you personally, I regret it and I retract them," he told Hollande.

He said he had not meant to "resort to personal attacks, which I condemn".

With anti-Villepin feeling now openly aired by many government lawmakers, even supporters in the national and regional press saw the incident as a grave sign of the prime minister's loosening control.

Others said it was time for President Jacques Chirac to sack him.

"The prime minister's words of defiance do nothing to conceal the reality of his waning political influence," said the conservative Le Figaro.

"Far from restoring calm to the right, he merely accentuated the growing sense of nervousness which -- with less than a year to presidential and parliamentary elections -- has overcome deputies from the ruling majority," it said.

"For the sake of the country we have to stop the massacre," added another paper, La Marseillaise. "Villepin's management is an endless Calvary which blights everything it touches."

The flare-up was sparked by criticism from Hollande of 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, which prompted scenes of rowdy confusion in the chamber, and several spoke openly of their disaffection.

"We cannot go on like this. Mr de Villepin is very intelligent, but he has absolutely no political intuition. It's just been a succession of crises and mishandled affairs. Even when there is no crisis, he creates one," said UMP deputy Christine Boutin.

Appointed a year ago without ever having run for elected office, Villepin initially enjoyed widespread support within his party -- as well as the country -- but he has gradually shed his reputation during a series of political mishaps. His popularity rating now stands at just 23 percent.

Weeks of street protests in March forced him to back down over a reform of the youth labour law, but he resisted calls for resignation.

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. This week he took the rare step of launching libel proceedings against the authors of two books on the Clearstream affair.

Further pressure came from his plan to merge the energy firms Gaz-de-France and Suez -- a move denounced as precipitate by many in the UMP. And then came the crisis at EADS, whose co-chief executive -- a friend of Chirac -- is accused of dumping stock in suspicious circumstances.

With the Socialists rubbing their hands at the government's discomfiture, right-wingers fear their chances at next year's elections are being wrecked by a man whose sole qualification -- they say -- is his close relationship with Chirac.

Calls for Villepin's replacement were growing among party members, but 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 dwindling "fin de regime".

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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