Chirac Shakes Up French Government

French President Jacques Chirac has replaced his prime minister. Chirac is trying to build national unity after losing a divisive national vote on the EU constitution. Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin resigned today and was replaced by Dominique de Villepin.

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France has a new prime minister today. He is Dominique de Villepin, a former foreign minister and interior minister. President Jacques Chirac made the announcement two days after the country voted soundly against the European Constitution. That vote is being seen as a signal of discontent with Chirac and his policies. From Paris, Eleanor Beardsley reports.

(Soundbite of French national anthem)

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY reporting:

After telling French voters he had heard their cry of discontent, President Chirac appeared on French television tonight to formally announce his promised Cabinet change. The unpopular prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, would be replaced by Dominique de Villepin.

President JACQUES CHIRAC (France): (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: The other contender for prime minister had been Nicholas Sarkozy, a young and ambitious politician with unabashed free-market views who leads Chirac's party. Many said he represents the kind of change that is needed after Sunday's repudiation of Chirac's government. But Sarkozy is also one of Chirac's most bitter rivals. Analysts speculate that Chirac needed the comfort and support of Villepin, one of his oldest allies. Analyst Bruno Tertrais said Chirac's choice was about more than friendship.

Mr. BRUNO TERTRAIS (Analyst): One of the reasons why Chirac picked Villepin is that he has an image, a kind of flamboyant image and an image associated with nationalism, which, from Chirac's point of view, is probably in tune with the mood of many of the voters that said no on Sunday.

BEARDSLEY: Villepin's the son of a wealthy industrialist who grew up in privilege abroad. He attended France's most prestigious university for bureaucrats, specializing in Voltaire. In 2003, Villepin became known to Americans when, as French foreign minister, he galvanized opposition to the war in Iraq during the UN debate the preceded the US-led invasion.

(Soundbite of 2003 speech)

Mr. DOMINIQUE DE VILLEPIN: (French spoken)

BEARDSLEY: For Americans, Villepin became the embodiment of French arrogance and ingratitude. Steven Ekovich, professor at the American University in Paris, says the nomination won't do much for Franco-American relations.

Professor STEVEN EKOVICH (American University, Paris): There is still, I think, resentment of Dominique de Villepin on the American side. After all, he did actively put together a coalition on the Security Council that tried to block any second resolution that may have authorized the war in Iraq.

BEARDSLEY: Villepin is a prolific writer and has published several books of poetry. NPR's Robert Siegel spoke to him last September.

(Soundbite of September interview)

Mr. DE VILLEPIN: Well, the very interesting thing about poetry is that it gives you a look to life, a very different perspective from the common one. So I think it's very important to have this kind of fresh look to be able to discuss, to raise questions. And I think it's very familiar with diplomacy, raising questions.

BEARDSLEY: Villepin is definitely part of the French political elite that voters rejected last Sunday. He has an idealistic view of France. Villepin himself once remarked that he dreamed of France long before seeing it. Rival Sarkozy says Villepin speaks about the people without ever riding in second class.

(Soundbite of doors being closed)

BEARDSLEY: Out on the street, Paris fishmonger Abdel Chatta(ph) was closing up shop for the day. He says the nomination of Villepin proves Chirac didn't understand the voters' message.

Mr. ABDEL CHATTA (Fishmonger): (Through Translator) I'm not at all happy about Villepin being named prime minister. He represents the privileged elite, and he's not going to help the working class at all.

BEARDSLEY: Villepin will announce the rest of his government on Thursday.

Holland prepares to vote on the EU Constitution in a referendum tomorrow, and polls suggest the Dutch, like the French, will say no. For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

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