PARIS – President Jacques Chirac (search) moved swiftly Monday to shake up his government following a stinging referendum defeat of the European Union's (search) constitution, with his beleaguered prime minister expected to be the main victim.
The president's office said he would announce "his decisions regarding the government" Tuesday and then address the nation in the evening. The National Assembly canceled a scheduled session Tuesday to await the announcement, chamber president Jean-Louis Debre said.
Chirac reached beyond French borders seeking to control damage from his voters' defiant "non!" on Sunday, speaking with European leaders and Russian President Vladimir Putin (search). The EU's euro currency dropped below $1.25 for the first time in seven months as the vote cast the 25-nation European Union's future into disarray.
Chirac gambled and lost in calling the referendum, misreading the national mood. The miscalculation left his judgment and mandate to represent France internationally open to question and had him looking like a lame duck at the end of a checkered four-decade political career.
His hopes that the French would fall into line behind him left him seeming hopelessly out of touch. A last-ditch TV appeal from his Elysee Palace three days before the vote, when he dramatically urged voters to consider their children's future, had no apparent impact.
Chirac and his aides point out that all political parties had wanted a referendum. But, as president, the decision was his alone.
"It was a gamble," said Noelle Lenoir, who was Chirac's minister for Europe until March and now heads the Institute of Europe think-tank. "The result shows that having a lot of power leaves you too alone."
Added Serge Hurtig, director of the International Review of Political Sciences: "He probably never imagined that it could be a tsunami."
The outcome was not even close: The "no" polled nearly 55 percent and the "yes" 45 percent. Turnout was 69.3 percent.
As Chirac sought to salvage what will probably be his last two years in power, his prime minister for the past three years, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, called together his aides to bid farewell. They packed boxes as Raffarin met with Chirac for 30 minutes.
The president also summoned possible replacements, including Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin and Nicolas Sarkozy, the head of Chirac's governing party who makes no secret that his ultimate aim is the presidency.
Chirac's age — he turns 73 in November — always made it unlikely that he would seek a third term in 2007. Sunday's vote could make it a certainty.
Even with a new team, it's hard to see how a politically weakened Chirac will be able to make much headway against France's pressing problems — led by persistent high unemployment and sluggish growth.
Chirac could have had parliament, where his center-right government has a majority, pass the treaty meant to mark Europe's next big step in a 50-year process of bringing the continent's once warring nations together.
Although it was later abandoned as impractical, Chirac, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and British Prime Minister Tony Blair even toyed with the idea of getting lawmakers in all three countries to vote on the text on the same day — perhaps May 8, celebrated as the end of World War II in Europe, Chirac's current and former aides said.
Such a symbolic passage could have given unstoppable momentum to the treaty.
Instead, Chirac sought to follow the tradition of his political role model, Gen. Charles de Gaulle, who called five referendums between 1958 and 1969. But unlike de Gaulle, who resigned when the last of his proposals was rejected, Chirac had said he would remain in power.
Chirac has misread the French before: In 1997, he called early elections, only for voters to tilt to the left, saddling him with a Socialist prime minister for the next five years.
And Chirac's second presidential term has wobbled on the shaky foundations of another electoral debacle in 2002. Chirac won just 20 percent of the vote against an array of rivals in the first round and was forced into a runoff against far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.
Socialists reluctantly voted for Chirac in the second round to keep Le Pen out, and he won with about 82 percent. But the result was not a strong mandate, and voters punished him in regional elections last year and again on Sunday.
Although the question posed was about Europe, the answer was a clear repudiation of Chirac's domestic policies. In an exit poll of 3,355 registered electors by Ipsos, 52 percent of "no" voters cited dissatisfaction with economic and social problems for their choice.