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Tuesday, May 31, 2005

French Leader Ousts Premier Over Lost Vote on Europe

June 1, 2005

French Leader Ousts Premier Over Lost Vote on Europe

PARIS, May 31 - President Jacques Chirac of France appointed his longtime protégé Dominique de Villepin as prime minister on Tuesday in an effort to restore confidence in the French government after the country's decisive rejection of a constitution for Europe.

In a televised address on Tuesday evening, Mr. Chirac confirmed the departure of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and confessed that the rejection of the referendum on the European Union constitution on Sunday had begun a period of "difficulties and uncertainties" that required the French to "rally together around the national interest."

He promised that the top priority of the new government would be job creation, an acknowledgment that opposition to the constitution was motivated as much by anxiety over the French economy as it was by fears of an enlarged Europe.

Criticism of the appointment came swiftly, as the left and even some on the right said Mr. Chirac was out of touch with his electorate. Mr. de Villepin, who emerged as Europe's most vocal opponent of the war in Iraq when he was foreign minister, was faulted as the wrong choice for prime minister because he lacked economic credentials.

The French cabinet shift comes on the eve of a similar referendum on the European Union constitution in the Netherlands, where up to 62 percent of the Dutch electorate was poised to vote no, according to a poll published Tuesday in the newspaper De Volkskrant.

Dutch voters have some of the same complaints as the French, including the fear of losing rights and benefits in a more powerful Europe.

A Dutch rejection of the constitution, after France's no vote on Sunday, is likely to kill the constitution, at least in its present form, because it requires approval by all 25 European Union members.

In a sign of increased anxiety about the future of Europe, the euro fell again after Mr. Chirac's announcement, sinking to an eight-month low of about $1.23 in trading on Tuesday before rising again.

Underscoring his struggles in the past two years of his presidency, Mr. Chirac also announced in his address that he was appointing a political foe, Nicolas Sarkozy, the head of the governing center-right party, to a crucial cabinet post with the honorary title of minister of state.

Mr. Sarkozy, 50, who is the most popular politician on the right and was a leading candidate for the prime minister's job, is widely expected to also be appointed interior minister. He has already held that post, considered the most important job after the prime minister.

Late last year in a fit of pique, Mr. Chirac forced Mr. Sarkozy to resign from his job as finance minister after he decided to run for the leadership of their party as a springboard for his bid for the presidency in 2007.

As for the 51-year-old Mr. de Villepin, Mr. Chirac explained that he had been chosen because he had "the necessary authority, competence and experience."

More than that, however, the appointment seemed based on trust.

Mr. de Villepin, a former career diplomat who writes poetry and long tomes on figures like Napoleon in his spare time, has never served in an elected office and has little experience managing the French economy.

But he served as Mr. Chirac's closest adviser in the first seven years of his presidency, and Mr. Chirac once described him as "a little like a son."

Still, the choice of Mr. de Villepin sends the signal that Mr. Chirac has not heard the message of the millions of voters who rejected the constitution to protest the government's failure to improve the economy and out of fear that they would lose generous but costly social benefits.

"De Villepin has shown he is capable of making big, huge speeches about the world, but not with dealing with economic files," said Roland Cayrol, the research director of the National Foundation of Political Sciences and the director of the CSA Polling Institute, in a telephone interview. "He has not spoken out on economics or even social matters, so he is a big question mark."

In a ceremony transferring power in the courtyard of the prime minister's office, Mr. de Villepin praised Mr. 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 plan of action.

At a moment when polls show that the workers, farmers and low-level civil servants voted decisively against the elite, Mr. Chirac has picked a man with a noble-sounding name who wears monogrammed shirts, carries a Gucci briefcase and holds a degree from the most elite school in France, the École Nationale d'Administration.

Political figures on both ends of the spectrum faulted the appointment.

"This is the worst choice the president could have made," said Jean-Pierre Kucheida, the Socialist mayor of Liévin, 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 former mining city in northern France that has 25 percent unemployment. On Sunday, 78 percent of the voters there cast ballots against the constitution.

The Green Party said that with the nomination, "Jacques Chirac insults the French."

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

"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 the southern city of Nîmes, in a telephone interview.

Mr. de Villepin could not be more different from his predecessor, Mr. Raffarin. A rumpled, self-described "bumpkin from the provinces" who started out in life as a wholesale coffee merchant, Mr. Raffarin served as a senator, the president of the regional council and a member of the European Parliament from the farming region of Poitou-Charentes in southwestern France.

How Mr. de Villepin will be able to succeed where Mr. Raffarin failed is unclear. As a result of the defeat of the referendum, Mr. de Villepin may feel pressured to increase spending on social services to boost the government's popularity, widening the budget deficit.

Even though the French prime minister does not deal with foreign policy, the appointment of Mr. de Villepin is likely to deepen the Bush administration's suspicions about France.

As foreign minister, he enraged the Bush administration, particularly former Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, with his relentless criticism of the American-led war and occupation in Iraq and his vision of a new activist, romantic vision of the world in which France would regain the centrality it lost long ago.

Mr. Powell and Mr. de Villepin initially had a good relationship, which unraveled at the time of a Security Council forum on terrorism in January 2003 demanded by the French in the prelude to the Iraq war.

In Mr. Powell's eyes, the meeting turned into a forum to slam Washington, when, without warning, Mr. de Villepin declared in a news conference that "Nothing! Nothing!" justified war. Mr. Powell felt betrayed.

The following month, Mr. de Villepin's impassioned speech in the Council arguing that war should be a last resort was greeted with applause from the audience - and even more anger from Washington.

Once described in the French magazine Le Point as "a silver wolf with burning eyes," Mr. de Villepin made no secret that he felt constrained in his 14 months as interior minister, a job that required him to do things like honor policemen and fine-tune immigration policy rather than travel to the capitals of the world.

Unlike Mr. Chirac, a natural politician who draws energy from mingling with the crowds, Mr. de Villepin seems ill at ease among France's rank and file.

Mr. Chirac's move reflects a circling-the-wagons strategy. He could have chosen Mr. Sarkozy, the former interior and finance minister, who was the first choice of the French for the job in opinion surveys after the vote on Sunday.

But Mr. Chirac and Mr. Sarkozy are openly contemptuous of each other. Mr. Sarkozy threw his support behind Mr. Chirac's rival, Édouard Balladur, in the 1995 campaign for president. And he has repeatedly criticized Mr. Chirac, suggesting openly that he is too old to run for a third term in 2007.

Mr. Sarkozy does not seem to have much respect for Mr. de Villepin, either. Without mentioning him by name, Mr. Sarkozy said in a campaign appearance for the referendum last week in Nice, "Those who have the right to speak in the name of France are those who once in their lives have faced a direct election by the people and who, better yet, who have managed to win their trust."

On Tuesday, however, Mr. Sarkozy was gracious. "I will assume my responsibility and my duties," he told a meeting of Parliament members from his party. "What would you say if I decided to stand by and watch the ship sink?"

Hélène Fouquet contributed reporting for this article.

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