Villepin steps into role of Chirac's heir-apparent

7th September 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Sept 7 (AFP) - French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin took the place of the hospitalised Jacques Chirac in the chair at the government's weekly cabinet meeting Wednesday, confirming his strengthening position as the 72 year-old president's heir-apparent.

PARIS, Sept 7 (AFP) - French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin took the place of the hospitalised Jacques Chirac in the chair at the government's weekly cabinet meeting Wednesday, confirming his strengthening position as the 72 year-old president's heir-apparent.

In what Elysée palace insiders said was the first time Chirac had ceded the position to a subordinate in ten years in office, Villepin presided over an hour-long ministerial conference at his official residence the Hôtel Matignon.

Earlier the 51-year-old prime minister visited Chirac at the Val-de-Grâce hospital in Paris, where the president was under observation for a fifth day after suffering what is officially described as a "minor vascular incident" that led to a "slight vision disorder".

Detail of the president's condition remained obscure -- feeding the inevitable rumour-mill -- but government spokesman Jean-François Copé confirmed that he will be out of hospital between now and the end of the week.

"The president of the republic is in very good shape," Copé said.

However it was not clear how quickly Chirac would resume full presidential duties -- including a busy travel schedule that starts with a trip to the UN in New York next week.

Villepin's elevation to presidential stand-in was widely seen as symbolic of his current strength in the undeclared succession battle that pits him against the ambitious right-wing interior minister and ruling-party chief Nicolas Sarkozy, 50.

Though Chirac has kept open the possibility of running for reelection in 2007, his sudden illness has made a third term increasingly unlikely, commentators said -- opening the way for 18 months of bitter in-fighting between his would-be replacements.

Villepin, a former foreign minister who was appointed in June after the shock of France's rejection of the EU constitution, has defied critics by pursuing an energetic programme of reforms and scoring higher than expected in opinion polls.

In the latest survey in Paris-Match magazine, the prime minister's approval rating rose by six points to 55 percent -- well ahead of Chirac's at 38 percent. Villepin's record after 100 days -- the deadline he set himself for restoring confidence that falls Thursday -- was judged positive by 56 percent.

For the first time he overtook Sarkozy in the "good opinions" stakes, leading by 62 percent to 61.

The prime minister, who made his name internationally defending France's anti-war line ahead of the Iraq invasion, is a loyal Chiracian whose plans for revitalising the dragging economy are designed to preserve all that can be of the country's cherished social model.

Last week he announced plans to reform income tax and encourage job creation with a series of measures which he defined as promoting "social growth".

By contrast the hard-headed Sarkozy has no compunction about attacking France's generous welfare system, which he blames for creating nearly 10 percent unemployment and a culture of lawlessness in high-immigration areas around the country's major cities.

A self-confessed admirer of British-style liberal reforms, Sarkozy wields considerable power as head of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP). But observers warned that he risks being outmanouevred by Villepin, who is selling a more palatable brand of "change through continuity".

The rejection of the EU constitution in France's May 29 referendum was largely put down to public anxieties over the pace of globalisation, and the threat it poses to the country's system of social protection.

In an interview with the Le Monde newspaper on Wednesday, Sarkozy said he believed that "the French hope for a profound change in the way politics is conceived ... France is not reactionary."

Asked about his rivalry with de Villepin, he said: "What is the problem? I am not the head of a clan or a sect, but of a diverse political family that intends to keep growing. Right now, the little game is: de Villepin and me. But we are not fools, neither him nor me."

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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