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Envoy picked as French prime minister

Chirac says de Villepin's task is to create jobs

PARIS -- 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 yesterday and said the new government will concentrate on reducing unemployment.

Best known as the fiery spokesman for France's opposition to the Iraq war, the silver-haired Dominique de Villepin replaced Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who resigned yesterday after voters rejected the proposed European Constitution.

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

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

Villepin, 51, takes the helm as an influential presidential ally who has advised Chirac during victories and debacles. As foreign minister in 2003, Villepin led a diplomatic offensive against the coming Iraq war that culminated with France threatening to wield its veto in the UN Security Council. The risky gambit hurt French-US relations but sent Chirac's popularity soaring at home and in the Arab world.

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

This year, the French president once again gambled and lost by choosing to submit approval of the European Constitution to the people in Sunday's vote, rather than opting for legislative approval.

Villepin, an admirer of Napoleon who writes poetry and political essays, now must focus his hard-charging style and volcanic oratory on reviving a battered government. While Chirac announced that Villepin's top mission would be creating jobs, he said the government wanted to avoid US-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."

Villepin's career does not give a preview of his potential policies.

''He has not made major statements on his economic and social vision for France," said Francois Heisbourg, a political analyst. ''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 Villepin has weaknesses. Although he spent the past 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.

Villepin also has bitter rivals in his ruling center-right coalition, including parliamentary leaders and Nicholas Sarkozy, the popular head of Chirac's party.

The French would have preferred Sarkozy to Villepin as prime minister by more than a 2-1 ratio, according to opinion polls.

Chirac, 72, treats Villepin as the son he never had, observers say. The question is whether the team will produce results. A high-ranking European diplomat based in Paris said in an interview that 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. ''Chirac and Villepin don't complement each other. They multiply each other."

Dominique de Villepin

A look at the government service of France's new prime minister.

1953 Born
1980-84 Foreign Ministry - African affairs
1984-89 French Embassy in Washington.
1989-92 French Embassy in New Delhi.
1992-93 Foreign Ministry - African affairs.
1993-95 Chief of staff of the minister of foreign affairs.
1995 Director of Jacques Chirac's presidential campaign.
1995-02 Secretary general of the presidency.
2002 Appointed foreign minister. Became the face and voice of French opposition to the Iraq war.
2004 Appointed interior minister.
Yesterday Appointed prime minister.

SOURCES: BBC, Who's Who, Wikipedia

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