President Jacques Chirac fired his prime minister Tuesday and replaced him with the man who was France's chief spokesman against the Iraq war in 2003. The cabinet shake-up was prompted by angry voters who revolted against a proposed European Union constitution and made clear they wanted changes at the top levels of government.
Dominique de Villepin took over from Jean-Pierre Raffarin in a ceremony at Matignon, the prime minister's official residence. A political protege of the president, de Villepin made his international reputation as foreign minister when he led French efforts in the U.N. Security Council to block the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He is a career diplomat with an aristocratic bearing and has never held elective office.
"We all know that when he was foreign minister, we had a variety of actions with him," State Department spokesman Richard A. Boucher said Tuesday in Washington. "It's up to the French government to decide who they want in their government."
Standing next to the French tricolor flag and a furled blue-and-yellow banner of the European Union, a subdued Chirac on Tuesday gave his third nationally televised address in a week and tried to reassure his country that he would work harder to tackle high unemployment and other domestic problems.
At the same time, he pledged to defend France's interests and identity within Europe, which has moved steadily over the last half-century toward economic and political integration.
"This shows the dissatisfaction and insecurity of today," Chirac said of Sunday's national referendum, in which 55 percent of French voters rejected the proposed European constitution, despite pleas from the president and many other national leaders to adopt it. "We need to act to overcome this difficult period and make progress," he said.
Chirac also confirmed he would name as interior minister Nicholas Sarkozy, chairman of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement party, who has made no secret of his desire to push Chirac aside and become president. Sarkozy enjoys much higher popularity ratings than Chirac, whose public standing has plummeted in recent months.
Chirac has ignored opposition calls to quit before his term ends in 2007.
Political analysts said it was unlikely that voters would be very impressed by his cabinet realignment. "Obviously, it is not sufficient for the people. There will be dissatisfaction," said Roland Cayrol, executive director of the French polling institute CSA. "People are tired of unkept promises and they want to see real things happening, especially in terms of unemployment."
Voters are unhappy with ruling parties in many European countries, a trend that couldn't come at a worse time for backers of the proposed constitution. The charter would give more powers to the central European government in Brussels to regulate issues as diverse as foreign policy and real estate purchases.
In the Netherlands, public opinion polls indicate that voters are likely to follow the French example in a referendum Wednesday and reject the constitution, which would likely kill or at least freeze efforts to adopt the document. All 25 of the E.U. member nations must ratify the charter before it can take effect.
Dutch voters express discontent not only with aspects of the proposed constitution, but also with local issues, including immigration and the job performance of Prime Minister Jan Peter Balkenende.
In Amsterdam on Tuesday, Balkenende rallied supporters to turn out for the vote but struggled to sound optimistic. "It's definitely not a lost cause," he told a Dutch television program. Earlier, he warned that Dutch rejection of the measure would mean that the country risked isolation. "The question of what will happen to Europe won't be discussed with us, but without us," he told the Trouw newspaper.
In France, supporters of the constitution said the rejection could backfire. Jean Francois-Poncet, a former foreign minister and leader of the French senate, said the country was sticking its collective head in the sand by failing to confront the challenges of globalization.
"We know now that France will not find her credibility in Europe again even if she goes quickly after the true reasons of the no vote," he said in an opinion piece published in the newspaper Le Figaro. He described those reasons as "the inability of France to adapt to the opening of her borders."
Political analysts said opponents of the constitution were not necessarily against the idea of a stronger, more consolidated Europe. Polls in France show that about two-thirds of French voters want to accelerate the political and economic unification of the continent, as long as they don't lose the generous social and welfare benefits that are acting as a drag on the national economy.
"They are firmly convinced their future is European," said Cayrol, the pollster. "But it depends on what kind of Europe you are talking about. They are in favor of Europe, but they would like some guarantees."