Raffarin has 100 days to win over the voters

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The Independent Online

President Jacques Chirac yesterday ignored the clamour for a high-level scapegoat following calamitous election results at the weekend and extended - for 100 days at least - Jean-Pierre Raffarin's term as Prime Minister.

President Jacques Chirac yesterday ignored the clamour for a high-level scapegoat following calamitous election results at the weekend and extended - for 100 days at least - Jean-Pierre Raffarin's term as Prime Minister.

The Prime Minister is on borrowed time. If the centre-right suffers a similarly humiliating rejection by voters in the European Parliament elections in June, President Chirac will probably dump M. Raffarin and try to make a new start.

The newspaper Le Monde said yesterday that a clear understanding, or "contract", to that effect existed between the two men. One minister spoke of M. Raffarin's "100 days" - the period that the Emperor Napoleon survived in power after his escape from Elba in 1815.

M. Raffarin, 55, bears a passing resemblance to Napoleon. The European elections could be his battle of Waterloo, an event which also took place in June. M. Raffarin will announce a government reshuffle today in which the Finance Minister, Francis Mer, the Education Minister, Luc Ferry, and the Health Minister, Jean-François Mattei, are likely to get the sack.

In the second round of regional elections on Sunday, the centre-left parties - themselves disavowed by voters only two years ago - captured 50 per cent of the nationwide vote and 25 out of 26 regions. Although the elections have no direct bearing on the centre-right's majority in the national assembly, the vote amounted to a rejection of M. Raffarin's policy of moderate social and economic reform.

The Prime Minister offered his resignation yesterday. The President accepted it but immediately asked him to form a new government - technically his third. Whether this was an act of courage on the President's part, or an act of cowardice, was the subject of intense debate. Some commentators suggested that M. Chirac was making it clear that the reforms - especially a tricky reform of the state health system which is €11bn (£7.3bn) in the red this year - would continue.

Others suggested that M. Chirac had balked at making the obvious choice and replacing M. Raffarin with the rising star of the centre-right, the popular and hyperactive Interior Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy. If M. Sarkozy succeeded in the job - a job in which few people have succeeded - he would be perfectly positioned to replace M. Chirac as the dominant figure on right side of French politics. The 70-year-old President has not given up hope of winning a third term in 2007. M. Sarkozy, 49, has made it clear that a younger man should be the standard bearer for the centre-right in three years' time.

There was talk that M. Sarkozy would be shifted to the Finance Ministry and given the - almost impossible - job of trying to balance the state budget. Centre-left politicians also complained that the reappointment of M. Raffarin was a slap in the face for voters who had protested against his income tax cuts (mostly benefiting the better off) and his reforms of the pensions and welfare systems.

Unions and left-wing pressure groups will claim a mandate from the people to oppose, on the streets if necessary, almost any attempt to cut state jobs and spending.

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