PARIS – Newly re-elected French President Jacques Chirac on Monday named a conservative senator as prime minister, a presidential spokesman said, his first major act after a landslide victory over an extreme-right challenger.
Jean-Pierre Raffarin, 53, will head a new conservative government that aims to swiftly respond to voter discontent and fears over rising crime. He will also help Chirac try to rally the right to victory in next month's crucial parliamentary elections.
The announcement came after Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin turned in his resignation in a widely expected move that cleared the way for Chirac's new government, which will serve at least until next month's parliamentary elections.
Conservative Chirac picked a prime minister from outside the ranks of his own Rally for the Republic party. Raffarin, a member of the Liberal Democracy party, used to be a marketing director and has been largely unknown outside political circles. One of his visions for France is opening its markets to greater free trade.
The announcement was made by presidential spokesman Dominique de Villepin on national television.
Chirac, 69, crushed extreme-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen with an unprecedented 82 percent of the vote in Sunday's election. He won with votes from the left as well as from his mainstream right, portending a tough fight in the legislative elections that will prove the test of his real power.
Chirac had the lowest score of an incumbent president in the April 21 first-round vote when Le Pen stunned the nation with his second-place showing.
"I heard and I understood your call (to ensure) that the Republic lives, that the nation rallies together, that politics change," Chirac said in a victory speech, acknowledging the contribution of the left and the groundswell of discontent that led to an "exceptional" election.
With more than 99 percent of the vote counted, the abstention rate was 19 percent compared to a record 28 percent in the first round. The turnout attested to the mobilization of the electorate in a two-week period of anti-Le Pen protests that culminated Wednesday, May Day, when more than a million people marched across France.
The 73-year-old Le Pen, accused of being racist and anti-Semitic, blasted the "morbid coalition" of right and left that joined in an unprecedented block to defeat him.
"The political conditions under which the second round was held were those of a totalitarian country," Le Pen said, referring to the banding together of politicians, unions and leaders in numerous fields to work toward his defeat.
The far-right leader's support was strong in the southeast, an area that has become home to a large immigrant population. He won more than 27 percent of the votes in that region.
Le Pen, who said last week he would consider any score under 30 percent a failure, vowed his anti-immigration National Front party would be avenged in legislative elections June 9 and 16.
France, in shock two weeks ago, was an ebullient nation Sunday night.
"I feel proud again to be French," said Heloise Hammer, 32, having a drink in a bar near the Champs-Elysees. She voted for the Greens party candidate, Noel Mamere, in the first round but was comforted by Chirac's victory, "a clear rejection of the extreme right and of fascism."
Le Pen's National Front, founded in 1972, has been a thorn in the side of the mainstream right since its strong showing in 1984 European elections.
Now, all eyes were turned to next month's parliamentary vote, called the "third round" by the left.
The worst scenario for Chirac, with a five-year mandate, would be a failure to obtain a majority of the right in the parliamentary vote, forcing him to share power with the left and crippling his ability to act.
Many blame his five years of tense power-sharing with Jospin for the unusual presidential vote, which featured 16 candidates in the first round, seen as a clear sign of French discontent.
Multiplying corruption scandals that tarnished politicians on the left and right, particularly Chirac, proved a symptom of France's political malaise. Several investigating judges want to question Chirac about his alleged involvement in a kickback scheme to fund political parties during his tenure as Paris mayor, from 1977-95, as well as his use of hundreds of thousands of public dollars for personal travel.
Protected by presidential immunity, Chirac was given a new reprieve.