After treaty's defeat, Chirac turns to Villepin

Posted in Europe | 01-Jun-05 | Author: Elaine Sciolino| Source: International Herald Tribune

Newly appointed French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin (R) talks to his predecessor Jean-Pierre Raffarin (L) in Paris.
PARIS President Jacques Chirac named his interior minister and protégé, Dominique de Villepin, as prime minister on Tuesday, a direct response to France's rejection of the referendum on the European Union constitution that was as much a rejection of Chirac's 10-year presidency.

Chirac also named Nicolas Sarkozy, one his most bitter political enemies, to the post of minister of state.

In a brief broadcast address Tuesday evening, Chirac said he appointed Villepin because he has "the necessary authority, competence and experience."

Calling for national unity to confront the uncertainty sparked by France's rejection of the EU constitution on Sunday, Chirac said that the top priority of the new government would be the creation of jobs.

"This vote is not a rejection of the European ideal," Chirac said. "It is a demand to be listened to. It is a demand for action. It is a demand for results."

Sarkozy, the head of the governing Union for a Popular Movement who had been in the running for the prime minister's job, will return to his job as minister of the interior, when Villepin names his cabinet, Élysée Palace said.

Chirac forced Sarkozy to resign from his job as finance minister late last year after he decided to run for the leadership of their center-right party as a springboard for his bid for the presidency in 2007. The appointment Tuesday was a dramatic overture to Sarkozy that underscored the gravity of France's domestic crisis.

Chirac, 72, who once described Villepin as "a little like a son," is gambling that a cabinet reshuffle will help restore confidence in his government. But the choice of Villepin, 51, sends the signal that Chirac, despite his pledges, has little intention of shifting course in his final two years in office and making the hard decisions that might put France's economy back on track.

Chirac spoke to the people of France in his broadcast address, saying, "You are calling for determined, immediate action to respond as soon as possible to the present difficulties, which are unemployment and spending power."

At a moment when polls show that ordinary people - the workers, farmers and low-level civil servants - voted decisively against his government, Chirac has picked as prime minister his former chief of staff, a well-born, elegantly dressed former career diplomat who has never served in elected office.

A hyperactive force who says he sleeps no more than four and a half hours a night, Villepin enjoys waking up aides to discuss matters of state, runs marathons by day and writes poetry and long tomes on figures like Napoleon by night.

By contrast, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the man who was dismissed as prime minister Tuesday, is a rumpled, self-described "bumpkin from the provinces" who coined the phrase, "the ordinary people from below." He started out in life as a wholesale coffee salesman and served as a senator, the president of a regional council and a member of the European Parliament from the farming region of Poitou-Charentes.

A Chirac loyalist who once said his role was "to stick it out and suck it up," Raffarin ends his three years in what is unquestionably the most difficult and thankless job in French politics.

Villepin is expected to announce his cabinet on Wednesday. Even though the French prime minister does not deal with foreign policy, the appointment of Villepin is unlikely to enhance relations between the United States and France. He enraged the Bush administration with his relentless criticism of the American-led war and occupation in Iraq.

Villepin also angered the White House with his vision of a new activist, romantic vision of the world in which France would regain the centrality it lost long ago.

Richard Boucher, the State Department spokesman, replied guardedly in Washington when asked whether the Bush administration had concerns that the new French prime minister was someone who had clashed sharply with the United States.

Boucher replied: "I'm not going to comment on the new French prime minister. We all know that when he was foreign minister, we had a variety of actions with him, and we know him from those days. But it's up to the French government to decide who they want in their government."

Villepin's trips to three African countries on the UN Security Council in the hope of persuading them to oppose the war resolution in the debate before the war was, in Washington's eye, the equivalent of diplomatic treason by an ally of the United States.

In France, his appointment was criticized by both the left and the right. "This is the worst choice the president could have made," Jean-Pierre Kucheida, the Socialist mayor of Liévin, said in a telephone interview. "It's nobility that's coming back. It is the Old Regime in power. The referendum was a cry of despair, of sadness, an enormous protest that could end up on the streets. The president was discredited. He should have resigned."

Liévin is a mining city in northern France that has 25 percent unemployment and where 78 percent of the voters voted against the constitution.

It is hard to grasp how the tall, silver-haired Villepin, with his noble-sounding name, monogrammed shirts and degree from the most elitist school in France, the École Nationale d'Administration, will relate to places like Liévin.

Even politicians from Chirac's center-right Union for a Popular Movement were reserved in their praise.

"It's true that it would have been preferable if Mr. de Villepin had rubbed up against voters," said Jean-Paul Fournier, the center-right mayor of Nîmes in a telephone interview, adding, "I am an elected official from the base, and it is important for a political official to have contact with the voters."

But Jean-Louis Debré, president of the National Assembly and a Chirac party loyalist, told reporters, "This is the best choice we could have made because this is a choice that unites us."

Villepin had said before his appointment, "All one's life one prepares oneself to take on certain missions that are sometimes difficult, sometimes unpredictable."

Villepin has been blamed by his enemies for helping persuade Chirac to dissolve the National Assembly in 1997 and call early elections, a move that brought in a Socialist-led government and ushered in five years of uneasy power-sharing with Chirac. The president has protected him ever since.

Villepin took over the reins of power from Raffarin in a brief ceremony in the courtyard of the prime minister's official Matignon residence.

He praised Raffarin for his "exemplary courage" and "the important, difficult reforms that were indispensable for the recovery of our country" but he said nothing about his own plans.