- The Washington Times - Monday, June 17, 2002

PARIS When French President Jacques Chirac tapped the little-known Jean-Pierre Raffarin with heading a caretaker government six weeks ago, many political cynics attributed the choice not to Mr. Raffarin's abilities but to his lack of presidential ambitions.
Moreover, the interim premier was said to have been recommended to the newly re-elected president by Alain Juppe, the influential former conservative prime minister who, according to the French press, has been charged with preventing the emergence of rivals to Mr. Chirac in the 2007 race.
But to the surprise of many, Mr. Raffarin, a 53-year-old provincial senator whom few have seen as a formidable national figure, has quickly grown into his own man. After Mr. Chirac's center-right coalition won a sweeping victory in yesterday's parliamentary elections, Mr. Raffarin's temporary post is expected to become permanent as early as today.
"We will assume our duty of action," he said as hundreds of supporters cheered and chanted his name at the headquarters of the Union for the Presidential Majority in central Paris last night. "We have the obligation not to disappoint. We will act with firmness and with openness."
Although Mr. Raffarin has yet to offer a comprehensive political vision, he has found followers with his businesslike approach to governing and his closeness to the concerns of the average French citizens who often are excluded from the thinking of the Paris elite.
"He finds a resonance in deepest France because he is, first and foremost, a locally elected politician. He has nothing of the haughty technocrats," wrote Denis Jeambar, managing editor of the weekly magazine L'Express.
"He worked in the private sector and knows the world of business," Mr. Jeambar said of the premier, whose only previous national post was junior minister of small business in Mr. Juppe's Cabinet between 1995 and 1997.
Mr. Raffarin's corporate model is reminiscent of President Bush's intentions early in his administration of running the government like a business. Those plans, however, had to be changed after the September 11 terrorist attacks.
Aware of the voters' worries about security and crime, Mr. Raffarin has been paying close attention to law-and-order issues. The new Cabinet's policy ideas have cut into support for the far-right National Front of Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose success in the first round of the presidential election in April was a result of widespread concerns about national security and immigrants' rights.
Mr. Raffarin was appointed prime minister on May 6, after the former Socialist premier, Lionel Jospin, resigned when he failed to qualify for the presidential runoff last month. In spite of Mr. Le Pen's good performance then, the National Front did not win any seats in the National Assembly with yesterday's vote.
The vice president of the small, free-market-oriented Liberal Democracy Party, Mr. Raffarin is widely seen as a consensus-builder, a likable and modest leader with few enemies.
A gray-haired, mild-mannered and slightly stooped man with a nose broken during a teen-age rugby game, Mr. Raffarin hardly complies with the image rules of the modern politician. But his experience in corporate communications earlier in his private-sector career has made his dealings with the media so far smooth and painless.
He says he speaks the language of "grass-roots France," where he draws most of his supporters. He lives in the provincial Poitou-Charentes region on the Atlantic coast.

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