'No' Vote on EU Charter Yields New French PM

French President Jacques Chirac names former Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin as new prime minister, a day after French voters overwhelming voted "no" on ratifying the EU constitution. Analysts say a weak economy and Chirac's own unpopularity contributed to the landslide defeat.

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French President Jacques Chirac is responding to a monumental rejection of his policies. Chirac wanted France to approve a new European Constitution, but on Sunday, voters said no. That vote damaged a long effort to bind European nations more closely together. Analysts say part of the reason for the no vote may be a weak economy and Chirac's own unpopularity. The president is unlikely to give up his own job, but he replaced his prime minister today. That's what we're learning from reporter Eleanor Beardsley who's in Paris.

And, Eleanor, who got the prime minister job?

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY reporting:

Well, the job has been gotten by the former interior minister, Mr. Dominique de Villepin.

INSKEEP: Who is well known to Americans who closely followed the debate over the war in Iraq, isn't he?

BEARDSLEY: That's right. If you remember de Villepin is the man who told America `No.' He gave those rousing impassioned speeches at the UN during the Iraq War. He represents a strong France sort of French ambition on the world stage, but people are saying the reason he was named is he's one of Chirac's closest allies and, in fact, it was a comfort move. Chirac is so shocked by what happened here on Sunday that he brought one of his closest people in. Now de Villepin has got energy, he's got panache, but he's part of the status quo. He is an elite. He's part of the establishment. He's never been elected to office before. He doesn't have a very good rapport with French Parliament members and some people are saying is it enough of a change to satisfy the French voters who were, in fact, voting against the elites, against the status quo? And we'll have to wait and see.

INSKEEP: Well, now this came after the French rejection of the European Union Constitution. French voters, though, seem to be saying more than that, that's what the analysts are say anyway. What's your sense?

BEARDSLEY: Well, that's absolutely right. Even people--pro-Europe voters said `No' on Sunday because they said, `You haven't been listening to us. We want change.' They don't feel like they've been listened to and you have--it's a vote by the small man, the man in the street against the elite, against the establishment, the French government, the bureaucrats in Brussels and even the media. They said they were all for the yes vote and they voted against them.

INSKEEP: What else might Jacques Chirac do to get back in touch with the people, so to speak?

BEARDSLEY: Well, it all depends--this is really--he's playing his last card now. It's his last chance to save his government and to get it right. He went on TV, and he told the French `I've heard your no cry.' So he has gotten rid of his very unpopular prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, and this new choice with the new government that will be formed by Wednesday is supposed to turn things around and to save his government.

INSKEEP: Now regarding the EU Constitution itself, we were told that all 25 members of the European Union had to ratify this Constitution in order for it to take effect. France has now said no. The Netherlands votes later this week and may well vote no. Does this mean that the Constitution is dead?

BEARDSLEY: Well, that's right. Brussels is still officially saying `No, we're going to go through the ratification process and see who says yes.' But what people are saying is they were so taken aback by the sudden rise of the French `no' that there is really--there has been no other plan. So they're saying that they're going forward, but let's face it, if Holland says no tomorrow, that's two EU founders rejecting it and not only will it lose momentum, but it's pretty much going to be dead. They're saying that, you know, they're going to have to go back to the drawing board and ask `What do Europeans really want from a European Union?'

INSKEEP: They might have to renegotiate a Constitution from scratch or just give up?

BEARDSLEY: They're saying that they do want to go through and see who is going to approve it. They may have to change their whole idea of what a union would mean to people.

INSKEEP: What's the mood that you sense as you walk around the streets of Paris today?

BEARDSLEY: Well, the mood in Paris is--people are angry and they don't understand because two-thirds of the people in big cities voted for yes. They do feel European--they think France's future is with Europe. So I talked to a lot of people and they've said, you know, `This is pathetic that people voted for the French government'--you know, they punished Europe basically for not electing their own government and people in Paris are angry. It's out in the countryside, the factory workers, the farmers who voted no, but you don't really get that sense when you're in the city.

INSKEEP: Eleanor, thanks very much.

BEARDSLEY: Thank you.

INSKEEP: That's reporter Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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