Chirac to change governmentafter massive election rout
PARIS, March 29 (AFP) - The fate of French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin hung in the balance Monday after his centre-right government was crushed in regional polls by a newly resurgent Socialist party (PS).
President Jacques Chirac held a meeting with Raffarin on Monday to discuss the aftermath of the government’s defeat in France’s regional elections, and a decision will be announced on a new cabinet within the next few days, the Elysee palace said.
Chirac “is working with the prime minister on the decisions which he will have to take within the next few days,” a spokesman said.
President Chirac was contemplating a major cabinet reshuffle to take account of the stunning electoral rebuff, amid mounting speculation over whether he would make Raffarin the scapegoat for the debacle.
Chirac’s ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party and its junior coalition partner, the Union for French Democracy (UDF), were almost wiped from the regional map in Sunday’s vote, as the PS took control of 24 out of France’s 26 regional assemblies.
A shake-up of the two year-old government with Raffarin staying on as prime minister through the summer was considered the most likely option before Sunday, but the scale of the rout tilted the odds against him.
“Politically Raffarin is dead,” said UMP deputy Jacques Myard, citing Defence Minister Michele Alliot-Marie as a possible replacement.
The pro-government Le Figaro newspaper said Chirac was still minded to keep Raffarin on, so that he can continue to draw public flak at European elections in June and through controversial reforms to the social security system, employment law and state-owned energy concerns.
The president is also reluctant to move Raffarin because the man most likely to revive the UMP’s fortunes as prime minister – Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy – is also Chirac’s clear rival for leadership of the centre-right, Le Figaro said.
“With Sarkozy the right would stay in power, but for Jacques Chirac the problems would begin,” it said.
However Le Monde newspaper, which opposes Chirac, said he had to accept the consequences of the defeat and enter a new period of “cohabitation” with Sarkozy. The term is used in French politics to denote the uneasy periods when presidents and prime ministers are of opposing stripes.
With three years to go till the end of its mandate, the government was overwhelmed on Sunday by a widespread rejection of its policies of gradual public sector reform, tax cuts and cautious economic liberalisation.
Recently Raffarin’s attempts to overhaul parts of France’s large state sector provoked a wave of protests by groups including scientific researchers, lawyers, hospital staff and performing artists – while his plans to change employment laws prompted the criticism that he sides with big business.
Speaking after the scale of the defeat became clear on Sunday night, Raffarin conceded that the government needed to be more responsive to social concerns, but he insisted the thrust of reforms could not be halted.
Government spokesman Jean-Francois Cope repeated the message Monday, saying: “We have launched a number of projects; we still haven’t seen the results. Two years is the toughest time for a government, but to stop the reforms would be suicide for our country.”
The PS emerged triumphant from the elections, with the much-criticised party leader Francois Hollande confirmed as the man most likely to rally the left in the run-up to parliamentary and presidential elections in 2007.
The strength of the Socialists’ performance relative to its former coalition partners in the Green and Communist parties – as well as the eclipse of the Trotskyist far-left in the March 21 first round of the election – also left the party enhanced freedom of manoeuvre in opposition.
However the pro-Socialist newspaper Liberation warned that the victory was more the result of a protest vote against the government than any true attachment to the party’s ideas, which it said had still to be fully formulated.
The Socialist gains “could encourage a growing fringe of the party to take an exaggerated line in opposition, instead of working towards a reformist body of doctrine in phase with the new age of social-democracy,” it warned.
The timing of the government reshuffle remained uncertain, but press commentators agreed that Chirac was likely to give the new cabinet a more “social” complexion to show that he has heard the message of discontent from the electorate.
Among those ministers believed to be most vulnerable are Education Minister Luc Ferry and Health Minister Jean-Francois Mattei. Tipped for promotion was junior urban affairs minister Jean-Louis Borloo, whose popular touch and enthusiasm have impressed Chirac.
© Reports from AFP
Subject: French News