French leader picks ally as new premier


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, Dominique de Villepin replaced Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who resigned yesterday after voters rejected a constitution for the European Union on Sunday.

The defeat 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 as a low-key, 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, he led a diplomatic offensive against the Iraq invasion that culminated with France threatening to wield its 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 Villepin 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.

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 U.S.-style free-market strategies that many French leaders see as favoring business over workers.

Villepin's career does not give 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 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 has a rather aloof image as a technocratic loyalist to a president perceived as out of touch with voters.

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 margin, according to opinion polls.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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