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Dashing new PM led fight against Iraq war

01 June, 2005

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President Jacques Chirac fired his prime minister Tuesday and built a new government around two men - one an unelected loyalist, the other an ambitious rival - who could one day fight to succeed him as France's leader.

Chirac's unlikely and potentially explosive pairing of Dominique de Villepin and Nicolas Sarkozy was a measure of the crisis Sunday's humiliating referendum defeat caused to his 10-year presidency. The reply from voters - a strong ``Non!'' - was as much a repudiation of Chirac's domestic policies as it was a refusal of the proposed European Union constitution.

Villepin and Sarkozy are unnatural allies. Just last week, in thinly veiled criticism, Sarkozy said only people who have held elected office ``have the right to speak in the name of France.''Villepin, 51, is a long-trusted aide who, as foreign minister from 2002-2004, passionately made France's case against the Iraq war. His political weakness is that he has never been elected to office. Chirac named him prime minister, promoting him from the Interior Ministry to replace the unpopular Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

Sarkozy, 50, is a media-savvy, former minister with a man-of-the-people touch and presidential ambitions. He gets the title of minister of state - a kind of super minister that makes him Villepin's No.2. A lawmaker who is close to Sarkozy, Yves Jego, said his portfolio is expected to be the Interior Ministry.

Acknowledging popular dissatisfaction with his economic policies in a televised address to the nation, Chirac said he asked Sarkozy to join the government ``in a spirit of rallying together.''Chirac said Sunday's vote represented a demand for ``determined, immediate action'' on domestic problems - persistently high unemployment and stagnant wages.

``This vote does not signify the rejection of the European ideal,'' said Chirac. ``It's a demand for listening; it's a demand for action; it's a demand for results.''The new government's priority will be creating jobs, Chirac said. Unemployment is running at 10 percent, rising to 23.3 percent among the under-25s. The 55 percent ``no'' vote to the EU treaty drew heavily on unemployed, blue-collar workers and farmers.

In tapping Villepin as prime minister, Chirac opted for a trusted aide rather than a radical change in direction. The two men have long been close. Villepin - a senator's son, writer and poet with excellent English - was Chirac's voice at the U.N. Security Council in the crisis over Iraq in 2003.

The French foreign minister faced down Secretary of State Colin Powell in pressing for more U.N. weapons inspections. U.N. delegates broke protocol to applaud Villepin after his impassioned appeal to make war a last resort. During the crisis over Iraq, Villepin frequently chided Washington for acting unilaterally. ``A country alone cannot bring peace. We see that in Iraq,'' he said in 2003.

Villepin also defended a central role for the United Nations in international affairs and Chirac's vision of a ``multipolar'' world - where powers like Europe, China and others balance out dominance of the United States. Although French prime ministers handle domestic policy, Villepin's international experience could prove useful as France seeks to limit damage from its rejection of the EU constitution - the first among the bloc's 25 nations.

Villepin spent 15 years in the foreign service in the 1980s and '90s, including five at the French Embassy in Washington from 1984-89. Sarkozy brings his popularity, energy and experience of government and - crucially - the legitimacy of having run in and won elections. The son of a Hungarian immigrant, trained as attorney, Sarkozy became France's youngest mayor at age 28.

As interior minister from 2002-2004, Sarkozy cracked down on drunk driving and launched a zero tolerance policy that sent crime plummeting. He also served briefly as finance minister before becoming head of Chirac's governing-center right party. Being back in government - but not in the prime ministerial hotseat - gives Sarkozy power and a platform ahead of presidential elections in 2007. If Chirac, 72, does not seek a third term, Sarkozy and Villepin may end up fighting each other to be the center-right candidate.

Chirac's ``bet is being able to transform Villepin into a credible presidential candidate, either for the next election or the one after that,'' said Nicolas Fauger, a political researcher at Sciences Po university. Villepin is expected to work closely with Chirac, unlike the more freewheeling Sarkozy. ``It will be a two-headed government with Villepin and Chirac on one side and Sarkozy on the other,'' said Jean Chiche, another Sciences Po researcher.

End.

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