De Villepin named PM after Raffarin quits in EU debacle
PARIS, May 31 (AFP) - French President Jacques Chirac on Tuesday appointed close aide Dominique de Villepin as his new prime minister, scrambling to pick up the pieces after the disastrous referendum defeat of the EU constitution.
De Villepin, 51, a career diplomat who has never held elected office, replaced the unpopular Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who resigned in the wake of Sunday’s EU debacle at the polls.
A suave former foreign minister who moved to the interior ministry in March 2004, Villepin earned a worldwide reputation for his impassioned denunciation of the US-led war in Iraq.
After French voters decisively turned down the landmark EU charter on Sunday, with nearly 55 percent of them casting “no” ballots, the 72-year-old Chirac said he would give a “new and strong impulse to government action”.
Chirac was due to unveil the priorities of his new government in a nationally televised live address on Tuesday evening. The new cabinet line-up was not expected to be revealed until Wednesday.
A dashing and silver-haired intellectual, De Villepin has been Chirac’s faithful servant since his appointment as the newly elected president’s cabinet director exactly 10 years ago.
The choice of De Villepin earned immediate scorn from Socialist senator Jean-Luc Melenchon, a leading voice in the constitution “no” camp, who said: “Jacques Chirac has chosen to adopt a sort of ‘bunker mentality’ politics.”
The Greens party, who supported the treaty alongside Chirac, called Villepin’s appointment an “insult to the French people”.
Insiders said Nicolas Sarkozy, the charismatic former finance minister and current head of Chirac’s ruling centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) could return to government as interior minister, while remaining UMP chief.
Sarkozy, 50, served as interior minister from May 2002 until March 2004, when he moved over to the finance ministry. Under pressure from Chirac, Sarkozy left the government in November 2004 when he was elected head of the UMP.
“I will assume my responsibilities and my duties,” Sarkozy told a meeting of UMP parliamentary deputies on Tuesday, one of the participants told AFP.
“What would you say if I decided to stand by and watch the ship sink?” he added, to loud applause.
Villepin and Sarkozy have a very difficult relationship, with Sarkozy recently hitting out at the new prime minister for never having run for elected office.
In a short speech from his Matignon offices after tendering his resignation, Raffarin said the end of Chirac’s five-year-term would be marked by efforts to cut a stubbornly high unemployment rate, hovering at 10 percent.
Raffarin, 56, served as premier from Chirac’s re-election in 2002 but saw his popularity rating take a nosedive to all-time lows in recent months.
“The record number of housing starts and the increase in the number of apprenticeships will help bring down unemployment, which will characterize the end of the five-year mandate,” he said.
“I will back my successor with all my experience.”
A fear of spiralling unemployment was the primary motivating factor for those who voted “no” to the EU constitution, according to a Sofres poll released Monday.
Sunday’s rejection of the EU treaty in France, the first country to turn down the text, was a crushing blow for Chirac, who put his authority on the line with multiple appeals for a “yes” vote.
Instead, the public was swayed by fears that the treaty would destroy the country’s generous welfare system, leach new powers to Brussels and shift jobs to low-cost economies of eastern Europe.
The vote has thrown the European Union into chaos, with the future of the bloc’s ambitious plans for closer political unity, as laid out in the charter, up in the air.
The Dutch are expected to vote down the treaty in a non-binding referendum on Wednesday, further aggravating the sense of crisis across the union.
Although Chirac had urged French voters not to mix domestic and European politics at the ballot box, many clearly used the referendum to punish his government – which they blame for the high jobless rate, falling real wages and a crisis of confidence in the country’s future.
Former Socialist prime minister Laurent Fabius, who defied his party leadership to lead a campaign on the left against the EU treaty, dismissed the anticipated new government as a cosmetic change.
“I’m not holding my breath for big changes. I think it will be nothing more than a replastering job,” Fabius said late Monday on TF1 television, describing the current crisis as “a problem of political legitimacy” for Chirac.
Subject: French News