Chirac warns centre-right rebels of 'punishment at the ballot box'

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The Independent Online

President Jacques Chirac last night came to the aid of his beleaguered Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, threatening his centre-right supporters in parliament with "electoral consequences" if they failed to support the government.

In a sometimes shaky and muddled appearance on prime-time television, M. Chirac rejected the possibility of a change of government before the presidential and parliamentary elections next year.

After just over a year in office, M. de Villepin has been weakened to the point of powerlessness by a series of scandals, rock-bottom opinion polls and an incipient revolt within the ruling centre-right party, the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP).

M. Chirac, subjected to an unusually tough interview on the France 2 evening TV news, dismissed these problems as pre-electoral "bubbling" and the "fantasies" of journalists. He reaffirmed his support for M. de Villepin, who he said had successfully boosted growth and reduced unemployment.

M. Chirac dismissed once again suggestions that he and M. de Villepin had attempted to manipulate false allegations of financial corruption against the rising power on the French centre-right, the Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy.

He refused to endorse the almost certain candidature of M. Sarkozy for next year's presidential elections, but gave his former protégé some faint praise for his work to restore law and order as Interior Minister.

It would make no sense to change the government with less than a year before elections, M. Chirac said. It would take three months for a new prime minister to find his feet and that would mean that "in effect we would lose a year".

He warned centre-right members of the national assembly that they would face "electoral consequences" if they failed to support the government.