PARIS – President Jacques Chirac (search), shaken by the defeat of the European Union constitution (search), appointed Dominique de Villepin (search), a loyalist who jetted around the globe galvanizing international opposition to the Iraq war, as prime minister to lead a new government Tuesday.
Villepin, 51, moves from the Interior Ministry to replace Jean-Pierre Raffarin (search), dumped after voters Sunday roundly rejected Chirac's call to ratify a European Union constitution, humiliating the 72-year-old president — a leading proponent of the charter.
Chirac asked Villepin to form a new government — the makeup of which was not expected to be announced until at least Wednesday.
In Villepin, Chirac opted for a trusted pair of hands, rather than a radical change in direction for France. The senator's son, a former foreign minister and writer who speaks excellent English, has long been close to Chirac.
He was Chirac's voice at the U.N. Security Council in the crisis over Iraq in 2003, arguing that war should be a last resort.
There was speculation the ambitious and popular Nicolas Sarkozy (search), a two-time minister who heads Chirac's governing center-right party, will be brought back into the new government.
Such a decision would be remarkable because of the sometimes open rivalry between Chirac and Sarkozy, who makes no secret of his presidential ambitions. Before Sunday's referendum, Sarkozy delivered what was interpreted as a veiled warning against making Villepin prime minister, saying only people who have held elected office — which Villepin never has — "have the right to speak in the name of France."
Lawmaker Yves Jego, who is close to Sarkozy, told France-Info radio he was being brought back as interior minister, a post he held in 2002-2004. He claimed Sarkozy also would be allowed to remain as head of the center-right UMP party, even though Chirac previously has said that job is incompatible with holding a government post.
Keeping control of the UMP would give Sarkozy the electoral machine he will need if he runs for the presidency in 2007.
There was no confirmation from Chirac's office of a post for Sarkozy. The silver-haired Villepin arrived at the presidential Elysee Palace just minutes after Chirac bid farewell to Raffarin with a handshake on the palace steps. Chirac then spent more than an hour with his new prime minister.
Villepin takes over at a difficult time. Unemployment is running at 10 percent and the French political establishment is reeling from the referendum vote that was as much a repudiation of Chirac's economic and social policies as it was a refusal of the EU treaty.
The outcome was not even close — the referendum on approving the proposed EU constitution was defeated by 55 percent to 45 percent.
Villepin's aristocratic air and the fact that he has never been tested in an election also could be drawbacks as the government tries to reconnect with the people.
Opposition Socialists dismissed Chirac's choice as a mere shuffling of personalities, not a radical change in direction. Senior Socialist lawmaker Jean-Marc Ayrault called Villepin's appointment the "ultimate attempt to save an administration in agony."
"The new prime minister will have no economic, financial or social room for maneuver," he said. "You can't heal a crisis with a poultice."
Philippe Moreau Defarges, a researcher at the French Institute for International Relations, called the appointment "a real catastrophe."
"People will come out on the streets to show their anger," he said. "It's a man who has never been elected, who doesn't represent the people at all. The crisis is not over yet."
For Chirac, Villepin was a known quantity — having been his closest adviser from 1995 to 2002. But Villepin also carries the blemish of being among those who counseled Chirac to dissolve the legislature in April 1997, a political disaster that led to victory for the left and saddled the president with a Socialist prime minister for the next five years.
Chirac may be hoping to groom Villepin as his eventual successor, perhaps at the next elections in 2007. But if Villepin's stewardship goes poorly, it also could ruin his chances of taking over as head of state.
Raffarin, in a short address after the president accepted his resignation, said Villepin's government would work to bring a significant drop in unemployment in the last two years of Chirac's second term — which could be his last.
"I confirm this commitment, even if the drop in the dollar and the rise in oil prices delay it for a few months," he said.
Raffarin defended his three-year record as prime minister, saying he acted to protect the future of the pension system and state health care, among other programs.
"I have always been aware that what is healthy for the nation does not go unblamed by public opinion," Raffarin said, referring to polls showing him to be one of the most unpopular prime ministers of the Fifth Republic founded in 1958.