New government filled with Chirac cronies, say rivals

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The Independent Online

A "crusading" government announced yesterday by the new French Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, came under immediate fire as too narrow and dominated by long-standing cronies of President Jacques Chirac.

After promising a "government with a mission", which would heal France's political wounds, the President and his Prime Minister were accused of settling Mr Chirac's political debts rather than casting their nets wide for political talent.

Dominique de Villepin, 48, a career diplomat who has been head of Mr Chirac's private office at the Elysée Palace for the past five years, was appointed Foreign Minister.

Jean-Jacques Aillagon, 56, a long-time protégé of Mr Chirac, and head of the Georges Pompidou arts centre in Paris, was named Minister for Culture. The head of Mr Chirac's political party, the RPR, Michèle Alliot-Marie, 55, was made – against her wishes – Minister for Defence.

Mr Raffarin did look beyond politics for the new Finance Minister, who will be Francis Mer, 63, a businessman close to Mr Chirac, who is head of the newly merged French-Spanish-Luxembourg steel company, Arcelor.

Criticism of the new government did not come so much from the left, which had helped Mr Chirac to his sweeping victory over Jean-Marie Le Pen in the second round of the presidential election on Sunday. The left hopes, in any case, to make Mr Raffarin's government one of the shortest-lived in French history by winning a two-round parliamentary election next month.

The complaints – both open and in private – came from the centre-right, which feels the government is too heavily weighted towards the entourage of the President.

François Bayrou, head of the centrist and Europhile UDF party, said the "concentration of too much power in the same hands" could lead to "unpleasant surprises". A member of Mr Bayrou's own campaign team added: "One day we are told that the time for political selfishness is over, that the President has understood the sense of frustration and exclusion in the country. The next day we see a government which is drawn about as narrowly as it could be."

President Chirac's choice of Mr Raffarin, 53, as Prime Minister has been widely praised (except on the left) as an attempt to reach beyond the Parisian elite and promote a provincial politician who believes in a decentralised government. Some voices complain, however, that Mr Raffarin has been chosen to keep the seat of power warm for Mr Chirac's closest ally, the unpopular former prime minister Alain Juppé.

As a friend of Mr Juppé, they say, Mr Raffarin can be relied upon to allow him – and the Chirac faction – a clear run at the presidency in 2007.

In other words, two days after almost all political and social forces, and 80 per cent of the French people, came together to end a crisis in democracy, normal, political bickering has been restored.

The other principal figure is Nicolas Sarkozy, 47, a rising star in Mr Chirac's RPR party, who becomes Minister for the Interior and Security and the number two in the government. Mr Sarkozy, who had hoped to be prime minister, gets the possibly poisoned, consolation prize of an enlarged portfolio for "internal security". After Mr Chirac based his presidential campaign mostly on rising crime figures – also blamed for the resurgency of the far right – his second term will be judged mostly by his success as a law- and-order president.