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Stung by Voters on EU, Chirac Replaces His Prime Minister

Times Staff Writers

Responding to one of the worst political crises of his 10 years in office, French President Jacques Chirac named a veteran diplomat as prime minister Tuesday and said the new government would concentrate on reducing unemployment.

Dominique de Villepin, best known as the fiery, silver-haired spokesman for France’s opposition to the Iraq war, replaced Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who resigned Tuesday after voters rejected the proposed European Union constitution.

The referendum’s defeat Sunday was a rebuff to EU policies seen as a threat to French prosperity and sovereignty. The results also reflected anger over Chirac’s stewardship of the economy, which is weighed down by a 10% unemployment rate.

Chirac appointed Raffarin in 2002, presenting him as a low-key, accessible figure sympathetic to voters exasperated by France’s economic and political stagnation. Instead, Raffarin became a symbol of the government’s inability to create jobs, spur growth and reform a bloated state bureaucracy.

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De Villepin, 51, takes the helm as an influential presidential ally who has advised Chirac during victories and debacles. As foreign minister in 2003, he led a diplomatic offensive against the approaching war in Iraq that culminated in a threat to wield France’s veto in the United Nations Security Council. The risky gambit hurt French-U.S. relations but sent Chirac’s popularity soaring at home and in the Arab world.

On the other hand, some center-right leaders blame De Villepin’s taste for the dramatic for Chirac’s 1997 decision to call early legislative elections in response to labor protests. That gamble backfired: The opposition won control of Parliament, forcing Chirac to share power with a center-left Cabinet for five years.

This year, the president gambled again by choosing to submit the European constitution to the vote of the people rather than opting for legislative approval. It was another bet lost.

An admirer of Napoleon who writes poetry and political essays, De Villepin must focus his hard-charging style and volcanic oratory on reviving a battered government.

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Although Chirac announced that De Villepin’s primary mission would be creating jobs, he said the government wanted to avoid U.S.-style free-market strategies that many French leaders see as favoring business over workers.

“The priority of governmental action ... is evidently employment,” Chirac said in a televised speech. “It requires national mobilization. I have decided this mobilization will be carried out resolutely with respect to our French model.... This is not an Anglo-Saxon type of model, but it is not a model synonymous with immobility.”

De Villepin’s career does not offer a preview of his potential policies, though he is not expected to diverge markedly from the president’s cautious centrism.

“He has not made major statements on his economic and social vision for France,” said political analyst Francois Heisbourg. “He’s very, very determined. He may have the ability to pull part of the electorate behind him.... I would argue we need a good ideas person as prime minister.”

But De Villepin has visible weaknesses. Although he spent the last 14 months overseeing domestic security as interior minister, his experience is mostly international; he seems more comfortable mixing with world leaders than street cops. He has never run for elective office, and he has an aloof image as a technocratic loyalist to a president who is perceived as out of touch with voters.

De Villepin also has bitter rivals in the ruling center-right coalition, among them parliamentary leaders and Nicolas Sarkozy, the popular head of Chirac’s party. The French would have preferred Sarkozy to De Villepin as prime minister by more than a 2-1 margin, according to polls.

Chirac, 72, treats De Villepin as the son he never had, observers say. A high-ranking European diplomat based in Paris said the two share a penchant for bold, grand initiatives, tending to egg each other on.

“If I have a right-hand man, I want him to have different qualities that complement mine,” said the diplomat, who asked to remain anonymous.

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“Chirac and Villepin don’t complement each other. They multiply each other.”

The weakened Chirac and his new point man will surely be hounded by emboldened opponents who prevailed in Sunday’s referendum, an odd assortment of populists, ultraconservatives, old-school Marxists and a rebellious faction of the Socialist Party.

One Chirac critic in Parliament, Arnaud Montebourg of the Socialists, called the choice of De Villepin a “historic error. The citizens on Sunday demanded to be heard. The response of the president of the republic is to name a man who doesn’t know what [electoral politics] is and has never crossed paths with a voter in his life. Other than embassies and ministerial palaces, Mr. De Villepin does not know his country.”

The choice of the former foreign minister reaffirms him as a potential presidential candidate in 2007. Although Chirac reportedly intends to seek a third term, his current difficulties make that less likely, Heisbourg said.

Sarkozy also is a probable contender. In contrast to Chirac and De Villepin, Sarkozy believes that France’s state-driven economic model is outmoded.

He admires the policies of Prime Minister Tony Blair in Britain, which has one of Europe’s lowest jobless rates, and is regarded as pro-American in comparison to many French politicians.

In a gesture to Sarkozy, Chirac announced Tuesday that the 50-year-old party leader would join De Villepin’s Cabinet “in the spirit of unity.” Sarkozy will serve as interior minister, a high-profile job he held from 2002 to 2004 that burnished his reputation as a crime fighter and troubleshooter.

Rotella reported from Brussels and Sicakyuz from Paris.

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

At home in the halls of power

* Age: 51

* Childhood: Dominique de Villepin was born Nov. 14, 1953, in Morocco, the son of an expatriate executive. He learned fluent Spanish growing up in Venezuela.

* Education: De Villepin received degrees in arts and law from the Institut d’Etudes Politiques in Paris, and he graduated from the Ecole Nationale d’Administration, France’s elite school for civil servants.

* Career: De Villepin spent 15 years in the foreign service, including a 1984-89 stint at the French Embassy in Washington. He was secretary-general of the presidency from 1995 to 2002, becoming one of President Jacques Chirac’s closest advisors. De Villepin served as foreign minister from 2002 to 2004 before becoming interior minister in 2004.

* Writings: A poet as well as an author of political essays, De Villepin has published a book about Napoleon.

Sources: French government, Los Angeles Times

Los Angeles Times


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