Chirac accepts the resignation of prime minister, rehires him

French president asks unpopular Raffarin to form a new government

March 31, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

PARIS - Governments come and governments go, and yesterday the French government went and came back again.

Two days after his Conservative Party was soundly defeated by the leftist opposition in regional elections, President Jacques Chirac accepted the resignation of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and fired his government. Then he turned around and asked Raffarin to stay on and form a new administration.

The news came with no explanation in a two-sentence statement from the Elysee Palace: "Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin handed the government's resignation to the president of the republic, who accepted it. He named Jean-Pierre Raffarin prime minister and ordered him to form a new government."

The opposition's overwhelming electoral victory triggered widespread speculation that Chirac would dismiss his unpopular prime minister, who had become the symbol of all deemed wrong with the way France is run.

But in keeping his 55-year-old prime minister, Chirac stubbornly refused to admit weakness, defying those who said it was the only way for his government and his party to recover from Sunday's humiliating electoral defeat.

Chirac was also unwilling to promote Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy to prime minister. Polls show that Sarkozy is the most popular politician in Chirac's party, but Chirac does not trust him. Sarkozy wants to be president and years ago abandoned Chirac to support his opponent.

Chirac's political enemies hungrily pounced on his decision not to dismiss Raffarin.

The president "remains deaf to the clear message that the French people sent to him," Laurent Fabius, a former Socialist prime minister, said in a statement. "More than ever, it is up to the left, in the regions and on the national level, to show that it is listening to the French people, to help them in their daily lives and to prepare the future."

Jean-Marc Ayrault, the head of the Socialist bloc in the National Assembly, said: "Jacques Chirac is locked in this castle like Sleeping Beauty, cut off from the reality of the country."

Noel Mamere, a member of the Greens Party who ran against Chirac in the presidential election in 2002, said: "I have a feeling the president of the republic does not understand the French people."

The Communist Party leader, Marie-George Buffet, called Chirac's decision "shocking."

Chirac's office said the new government will be announced today.

The Socialist-led leftist opposition won all but one of the country's 22 metropolitan regions and all four overseas territories in Sunday's elections.

The left had been expected to do well, but not by such margins.

The election became a midterm referendum on the performance of the government. A higher-than-expected voter turnout combined with deep voter dissatisfaction over the government's handling of the economy and its economic reform plan, which is generally perceived as unfair.

The most stunning development was that the defeated included Chirac's ministers and closest aides, who also held elected regional positions.

The official spokesman for the French government, Jean-Francois Cope, lost in the Paris region. Labor Minister Francois Fillon lost in the Loire. Transportation Minister Gilles de Robien lost in Picardy.

But the most humiliating defeat was the race lost by Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the 78-year-old former president. Voters in his Auvergne region drummed him out of the seat he has held for 18 years. They chose a little-known Socialist accountant instead.

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