Chirac seeks to overcome rejection with new cabinet

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The Independent Online

President Jacques Chirac will appoint a new prime minister and government today in an attempt to regain a shred of credibility following his stinging personal humiliation in Sunday's European Union consitution referendum.

Jean-Pierre Raffarin, the Prime Minister, will be the first to pay the price for the crushing 55 per cent vote against the proposed constitution - a result variously described by French commentators as an "earthquake", "tsunami" or "cluster bomb".

In an attempt to regain some authority, M. Chirac is expected to give the new prime minister - possibly the Interior Minister, Dominique de Villepin, or the Defence Minister, Michèle Alliot Marie - orders to adopt a less confrontational and pro-business approach than the outgoing government. In the context of the anti-market, nationalist mood revealed by the vote, that is likely to mean a more "social", less reformist and more protectionist France in the coming months.

M. Chirac will announce his choice of prime minister, and the "new impetus" for his presidential term, in a televised address tonight.

The ruling political establishment of centre-right and leadership of the main centre-left opposition parties were repudiated and humiliated by French voters. A clear majority of anti-treaty ballots came from the left, including 59 per cent of regular Socialist voters and 64 per cent of the Greens - parties that were officially pro-constitution. Voters of the nationalist and xenophobic far right joined them in a tidal wave of protest that exceeded 60 per cent of the vote in many départements in the south, centre and north, and touched 70 per cent in the depressed Pas de Calais.

Paris, which voted a staggering 66 per cent for the "yes", Brittany, north Alsace and many large cities - Toulouse, Bordeaux, Caen, Nantes, Rennes, Besançon, Dijon, Metz, Strasbourg, Aix - defied the trend and backed the constitution. So did 76 per cent of M. Chirac's centre-right supporters.

The result painted a picture of (at least) two Frances: a thriving, outward-looking France of most big cities and a depressed, inward-looking, defensive and public-sector France of the middle-class and blue collar suburbs, small towns and the countryside. An overwhelming majority of French farmers voted "no", despite receiving €20bn (£14bn) a year in subsidies.

But there was also a sharp cleavage between older voters, over 50, who tended to be pro-treaty, and younger voters, 18 to 24, who were 69 per cent against. The youthful anti-treaty vote was overwhemingly left-wing, rooted in the resurgence of idealistic, anti-capitalist, anti-free trade feelings, fostered by the anti-globalist movement.

Although M. Chirac's centre-right mostly obeyed his calls to vote "yes", the President still faces a discredited, directionless, final two years of his second term. Despite three appeals to the nation, despite popularity figures in the 80s at the time of his opposition to the Iraq war two years ago, most French people rejected a constitutional treaty which was M. Chirac's idea.

It is now barely conceivable that the President could seek a third term.

Exit polls painted a confused picture of voters' motives: two-thirds said they were voting on European issues; two-fifths said they were protesting against unemployment and poverty. The linking theme appears to have been fear - fanned by leftist, anti-treaty politicians - that the EU's expansion to the east will destroy jobs in France.

But the swing electorate of the centre-left - the only group that has budged since the campaign started - is not composed of blue-collar and unemployed workers (who vote mostly with the anti-EU extremes of right and left). It consists mostly of teachers, civil servants and other employees in the huge public sector, who do reasonably well within the French system. To that extent, Sunday's result was a conservative revolution against change and against the perceived free-market threat of an enlarged EU.

Analysts in the mainstream print media - all pro-treaty - were stunned. Serge July, the founder and editor of the centre-left daily Libération, said the "yes" camp had "surpassed itself in incompetence, [the "no'' camp] in shameful lies". Jean-Marie Colombani, the publisher ofLe Monde, said: "Let's reject the voices which are already urging us to fall back on a narrow conception of the 'national interest'."

The danger is that M. Chirac will play to precisely that gallery, or that a future left-wing president, post-2007, could question the free market religion of the EU. If that happens, the single market of 400,000,000 consumers could unravel.

The fallout

WINNERS

Nicolas Sarkozy: A candidate to be prime minister, he is seen as the only leader on the right offering an alternative to the status quo

Dominque de Villepin: The former foreign minister is the favourite to become prime minister

LOSERS

Jacques Chirac: The President is seen as a lame duck having led the campaign for a 'yes' vote

Jean-Pierre Raffarin: The deeply unpopular Prime Minister is expected to be the scapegoat for M. Chirac's defeat

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