French president taps center-right prime minister

Chirac names Raffarin for interim post in bid to restore conservative base


PARIS - Moving quickly to capitalize on his landslide re-election victory, President Jacques Chirac named yesterday a new center-right prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, to restore his conservative base and lead his party into the crucial legislative elections next month.

Chirac made the appointment after the Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, officially handed in his resignation yesterday. Jospin said last month that he would retire after being knocked out of the first round of the presidential vote by the surprising showing of the extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen.

In choosing Raffarin, Chirac, who defeated Le Pen on Sunday by the widest margin in French history, signaled that he had heard the anger of French voters at the Paris-based government elite.

Raffarin, 53, an affable and little-known former junior minister for small businesses, is not a member of Chirac's party. He is a low-profile senator and the head of a regional council in western France.

Political analysts saw Raffarin as a shrewd choice. He is from a free-market party, in touch with the grass roots and capable of bringing back into the conservative fold many of the small entrepreneurs who had defected to Le Pen over fears of unemployment and crime.

With the presidential election over, Chirac is on tricky ground. A broad coalition, from the left and right, had assembled behind him to show the world that France would have none of Le Pen's extreme views on immigration and the European Union.

Yet that support has already evaporated. Chirac now has only six weeks to convince the French to give him a majority in the parliamentary election. Without it, he could face another period of "cohabitation," when the president and prime minister are from different parties and often working at cross-purposes.

Chirac did not make any public appearances yesterday, sending the secretary-general of the Elysee Palace to announce the appointment of Raffarin, who is a member of the Liberal Democracy, a center-right party that is close to Chirac's party, Rally for the Republic.

Raffarin told reporters that he would name his Cabinet today, adding he "had not forgotten the unhappiness the French expressed in the first-round elections."

Raffarin, whose restrained personal style is unlikely to upstage Chirac, will serve for six weeks and may continue in the post if Chirac wins the parliamentary elections.

Two polls have suggested that France's conservative parties would win next month's legislative elections, albeit by a small majority. One poll by the CSA polling institute said the right would win 295 seats against 258 for the left. Another survey by the Sofres polling institute said the right would get 271 to 331 seats while the left would get 232 to 272 seats. Both polls said that Le Pen would capture only one to three seats.

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