PARIS – France's new prime minister tried to form a government Wednesday to tackle the country's top priority of unemployment, but he faced the immediate challenge of an impending national rail strike in his first day on the job.
The appointment of Dominique de Villepin (search) — a globe-trotting, silver-haired statesman who seems to epitomize France's privileged class — was criticized as a move by a leadership playing "musical chairs" in a bid for survival, rather than a courageous choice to deal with the country's problems.
President Jacques Chirac (search) named his protege as prime minister in a government shake-up following Sunday's humiliating defeat in a referendum on the proposed European Union constitution. The rejection was as much a repudiation of the domestic policies of Chirac's 10-year presidency as it was a rejection of the EU charter.
Villepin set a deadline for himself of 100 days to "give the French back their confidence." He said Wednesday in his first prime-time TV appearance since being appointed that he will name his government by the end of the week, and he declared that fighting unemployment will be "the big battle."
But critics suggested Villepin has little time to spare.
Socialist lawmaker Jean-Marc Ayrault (search) called Villepin's appointment "the ultimate attempt to save a regime in agony."
"You don't cure a crisis with a compress," Ayrault said, noting that Villepin was a "man of the (governing) clan."
Added Green Party leader Yann Wehrling: "There's a strong chance that absolutely nothing will happen."
The White House on Wednesday offered a mild endorsement of Villepin's elevation to prime minister. As foreign minister, Villepin was Chirac's voice at the U.N. Security Council in 2003, arguing that war in Iraq should be a last resort.
"We've worked with him in the past, we'll work with him in the future," White House spokesman Scott McClellan said. "That's a decision for the French government to make."
Meeting with senators from the center-right majority, Villepin traced a "direction of action, boldness and mobilization" to pull France out of the "extremely difficult situation" following the referendum defeat.
"Each month, I will account for my action and the results to the French," participants at the meeting quoted Villepin as saying.
He said senators would have a role in the process, telling them the prime minister's office "will be your home. My door will always be open to you."
His first hurdle was a planned strike by workers at the national train authority, the SNCF, due to begin at 8 p.m. (2 p.m. EDT), emblematic of the tough road ahead for a government drawing criticism even before it formed.
It was not clear when the Cabinet would be named, with some suggesting it might be as late as Friday. The daily Le Figaro said Foreign Minister Michel Barnier was a likely victim, paying the price for Chirac's referendum defeat.
Chirac, addressing the nation Tuesday, set reducing France's 10 percent jobless rate as the top priority. He called on unions and employers to pitch in.
The offer was a clear bid to narrow the widening gulf between the people and its leaders that all sides conclude was partly to blame for the "no" vote Sunday.
Chirac also named Nicolas Sarkozy, his ambitious rival and a potential presidential candidate in 2007, to the No. 2 post heading the Interior Ministry. It is a combination that the daily Le Parisien dubbed in bold headlines "Explosif!"
Villepin played down any differences with Sarkozy, saying Wednesday, "I am overjoyed to be able to count on his talent in this team. The French are tired of personal quarrels."
On the left, Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande on Wednesday criticized the "confusion" that he said the Villepin-Sarkozy team represents with "two prime ministers following two different policies."
Chirac, meanwhile, asked the 24 other EU leaders to use a planned European Council meeting this month to reflect on the consequences of France's rejection of the continent's first charter.
In a letter to EU heads of state and government made public Wednesday, Chirac said the nations should "take the time to analyze well the consequences for the Union of the vote in France."
The Netherlands held a referendum Wednesday and polls have shown that the constitution could be rejected there, too. However, the French referendum had particular impact because it was the first country to vote "no" and because France is a founding member of the union, which has been under construction for a half-century.
The charter needs the approval of all 25 EU members to take effect.
Chirac's request that a June 16-17 meeting of the European Council be used to start analyzing the consequences of the French referendum contradicts the stance of Danish Prime Minister Anders Fogh Rasmussen. He said Tuesday that leaders must make "a clear decision" about the future of the EU's first constitution at the June summit.
"Denmark will insist [on] a very clear decision on how the process will continue," Fogh Rasmussen said.
Danes will vote Sept. 27 on the constitution, with surveys showing that a majority back the charter.
In his letter, Chirac stressed that the French rejection does not put into question his nation's commitment to the EU.
"France is a founding nation of the Union" and "will continue to fully hold its place," he wrote.