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‘No’ cuts Chirac’s choices

Paris, May 30 (Reuters): French President Jacques Chirac was poised to appoint a new prime minister after voters rejected the EU constitution, with a bitter political rival and a loyalist minister vying for the post.

Aides said Chirac, who swiftly conceded defeat after 55 per cent of voters rejected the EU’s charter, will address the nation later. He is widely expected to announce a new prime minister and cabinet during the day. Minutes after polls closed yesterday, Chirac pledged to respond to the result “by giving a new and strong impetus to the action of the government”.

After brief talks with Chirac early today, Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin told reporters to expect unspecified “developments” by the next day.

Raffarin’s deep unpopularity is widely blamed for sinking the “Yes” campaign. Polls suggest voters used the ballot in part to punish his government’s poor record on tackling high unemployment and painful cost-cutting reforms.

Staff at the prime minister’s official Matignon residence said Raffarin had bid farewell to members of his personal staff, who were already packing up their belongings.

The unexpected extent of the defeat complicated Chirac’s task of picking a successor among interior minister Dominique de Villepin, his UMP party leader Nicolas Sarkozy or a surprise third candidate. Chirac also received Sarkozy today.

The dashing Villepin, whom Chirac sometimes treats like the son he never had, was considered the front-runner if voters either backed the treaty or rejected it with a tight majority.

But voter discontent is clearly so widespread that Chirac might feel obliged to opt for the more experienced politician Sarkozy, despite differences that have divided the two men for years, political analysts said.

With his dashing good looks, striking head of grey-white hair and boundless confidence and energy, Villepin is an ultra-loyal aristocrat who, as foreign minister, was the public face of French opposition to the US-led war in Iraq.

A 90-minute talk with Chirac on Friday, officially to discuss preparations for yesterday’s referendum, was seen as a clear sign he was to be named prime minister. The weekly Journal du Dimanche newspaper quoted one insider as saying Villepin had already penned his policy speech to parliament and had been working on his cabinet line-up.

Defence minister Michele Alliot-Marie, labour minister Jean-Louis Borloo and health minister Philippe Douste-Blazy also covet Raffarin’s job, but the leader of the ruling Centre-Right party is seen as Villepin’s main rival for the post.

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