Chirac picks new prime minister

ELIZABETH BRYANT, United Press International

PARIS, May 6 (UPI) -- French President Jacques Chirac on Monday said that Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a little known, center-right politician, would replace Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

A provincial politician from the moderate Liberal Right party, known for his hands-on style of governance, Raffarin, 53, was expected to name his government quickly.


Pascal Perrineau, head of the Paris-based Center for the Study of French Political Life, praised Chirac's choice of prime minister, saying the president applied the "logic of surprise."

"The voters surprised the political class," Perrineau told France-Info radio Monday, referring to Chirac's lop-sided election victory Sunday against far-right presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen. "So the political class must surprise the electorate a bit."

Chirac's re-election Sunday was widely expected, with the electorate expected to vote against Le Pen and his extremist views more than show support for Chirac. Sunday night, the president promised to respond to voters' deep concerns, most immediately by moving quickly to crack down on crime.

Whether Chirac's new government will survive past legislative elections scheduled for June 9 and 16, is anybody's guess.

The left -- which helped hand the president his victory Sunday by urging supporters to the polls -- has vowed it will rebound, after Jospin's stunning third-place finish in the first round of presidential elections last month.

Le Pen, too, promised that his far-right National Front Party would score major wins in the June National Assembly elections.

Some analysts believe that is unlikely, given the disappointing finish of the 73-year-old Le Pen -- who captured 18 percent of the vote, rather than the 25 percent to 30 percent he had predicted.

National Front deputies elected next month will be "counted on with the fingers of one hand -- or even half a hand," Perrineau predicted. Currently, not a single member of Le Pen's party sits in Parliament.

Still others point out the National Front has amassed new supporters in rural regions and areas like Lyon, where it previously carried little weight.

Chirac's choice of Raffarin echoes his recent pledges to gather a grand coalition

behind his centrist-right message -- and to respond to a disaffected electorate.

A former minister in Chirac's fleeting, 1995-97 government, Raffarin is a provincial politician and a strong supporter of decentralization.

In January, Raffarin published "For a New Governance," outlining his ideas on changing France's centralized system of governing.

Among other suggestions, he called for drastically paring down the number of ministers in the French government and handing more decision-making to the provinces.

Once a disciple of former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing -- a long-time Chirac foe -- Raffarin slowly moved into Chirac's camp, becoming a staunch


Raffarin remains, however, a member of the small Liberal Right party -- and therefore,

represents Chirac's efforts to gather center-right parties into an umbrella group

headed by the president's Rally for the Republic Party.

Such an effort would increase conservative chances of prevailing in the June elections -- but key leaders, including Liberal Right party leader Alain Madelin, and Union for French Democracy leader Francois Bayrou, are balking.

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