- The Washington Times - Wednesday, June 1, 2005

French President Jacques Chirac yesterday named close ally Dominique de Villepin, a sharp critic of the U.S.-led war in Iraq, as his new prime minister, two days after voters delivered the government a humiliating setback over a proposed new European Union constitution.

Mr. Chirac has described the new prime minister as like a son to him. He said the new de Villepin government would give a “new and strong impulse to government action.”

But the selection of the white-maned, aristocratic Mr. de Villepin, 51, was widely panned in Paris and met with only a cool, correct response from the Bush administration.

“This is bunker logic from Chirac, just trying to survive in power,” said Amaya Bloch-Laine, director of the Paris office of the German Marshall Fund. “The message of this appointment is that the government has no plan on how to move ahead.”

Europe’s political establishment was braced for a second shock today as polls say Dutch voters will reject the constitution by an even greater margin than the French 55 percent-45 percent “no” victory Sunday.

Many believe the votes will prove fatal to the EU constitution, designed to make the 25-nation bloc more efficient internally and more important politically and diplomatically on the world stage.

Critics in France noted that Mr. de Villepin was a career diplomat and government minister who had never run for office.

Mr. de Villepin “has never met a voter in his life,” Socialist lawmaker Arnaud Montebourg told the Reuters news agency. “From embassies to ministerial palaces, Mr. de Villepin knows nothing about his country, only its honors.”

Mr. de Villepin, who was foreign minister in the run-up to the Iraq war and served most recently as interior minister, replaces unpopular Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin. Mr. Raffarin has been criticized for botching the EU referendum and for failing to dent the country’s 10 percent jobless rate.

The son of a well-known French senator, Mr. de Villepin went to an elite Parisian school and served in Washington and a number of other diplomatic posts before Mr. Chirac named him a top adviser in 1995.

He has been politically and personally close to the president ever since, despite being blamed for the government’s decision to call parliamentary elections in 1997, which cost Mr. Chirac his governing majority.

Named foreign minister in June 2002, Mr. de Villepin clashed repeatedly with his U.S. counterparts before the Iraq conflict, infuriating Secretary of State Colin L. Powell with an impassioned plea against the war at the United Nations.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher stepped gingerly around a question about the appointment, saying the full French Cabinet had not been named.

“We all know that when he was foreign minister, we had a variety of actions with him and we know him from those days,” Mr. Boucher said. “But it’s up to the French government to decide who they want in their government.”

John C. Hulsman, a European specialist at the Heritage Foundation, said the de Villepin pick was particularly provocative because he actively campaigned abroad against the U.S. policy toward Saddam Hussein.

“It certainly can’t improve relations,” he said. “For a time, de Villepin was the No. 1 persona non grata for the Bush administration.”

Mr. Hulsman also noted that one of the main reasons French voters decisively rejected the EU constitution was a feeling the country’s elected leaders, beginning with Mr. Chirac, did not understand the concerns of ordinary people.

“This only shows that Chirac is totally out of touch with the real world,” he said.

Mrs. Bloch-Laine said the French government faces real paralysis since Mr. Chirac also yesterday named Nicolas Sarkozy, leader of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement party, to a Cabinet post as well.

The brash Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. de Villepin are seen as leading rivals in the race to succeed Mr. Chirac, with presidential elections now set for 2007.

The two men “hate each other,” she said. “A government completely obsessed with its own survival is not going to carry out the reforms we need.”

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