Chirac names De Villepin prime minister

President Jacques Chirac today appointed Dominique de Villepin as prime minister to head a new government in response to the humiliating defeat of Sunday's European Union consitution referendum.

Villepin, 51, a loyalist who was France's voice against the Iraq war, moves from the Interior Ministry to replace Jean-Pierre Raffarin, dumped after voters rejected M. Chirac's call for the ratification of a European Union constitution.

M. Chirac charged M. Villepin with the task of forming a new government. M. Villepin arrived at the presidential Elysee Palace just minutes after the president bid farewell to M. Raffarin with a handshake on the palace steps.

M. Villepin, a former foreign minister, is best known for his eloquent defence of the French stance against a US-led invasion of Iraq. He is a long-standing Chirac loyalist and was once his top counsellor. However, he is an unpopular choice among lawmakers opposed to a prime minister who has never held elected office.

The silver-haired M. Villepin takes over at a difficult time. Unemployment is running at 10 percent and the French political establisment is reeling from Sunday's referendum.

M. Raffarin, in a short address after the president accepted his resignation, promised that his successor would work to bring a significant drop in unemployment in the last two years of the president's second term - which could be his last.

"I confirm this commitment, even if the drop in the dollar and the rise in oil prices delay it for a few months," he said.

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