After landslide victory, Chirac starts clock in dash for reform

John Chalmers,PARIS, Reuters

French President Jacques Chirac formally reappointed his down to earth prime minister on Monday after the center-right’s landslide victory in parliamentary elections, starting the clock in a dash for reform.

The conservatives’ surge in Sunday’s voting ended the left’s five-year grip on the National Assembly and shut the far-right National Front out of the lower house altogether, less than two months after its leader Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked Europe by finishing runner-up to Chirac in a presidential election.

Chirac’s newly founded Union for the Presidential Majority (UMP) and its allies won a commanding 399 seats in the 577-strong Assembly against just 178 for the Socialists and other leftists, who are now outnumbered by more than two to one.

“The president of the republic has entrusted Jean-Pierre Raffarin with the functions of prime minister again and asked him to form the government,” Chirac’s office said.

It was a bald statement that conveyed none of the triumph in the Elysee Palace, a home that Chirac seemed in grave danger of losing just a few months ago, amid allegations of sleaze and buoyant popularity ratings for his Socialist presidential rival.

Re elected after mass street protests against Le Pen’s anti-immigrant policies, the head of state now has a strong hand to cut taxes, ease labor laws and reform pensions after five years of paralyzing “cohabitation” with a left-wing government.

Sunday’s elections marked the latest step in the mainstream right’s advance across western Europe, where similar parties have ousted leftist administrations in Italy, Portugal, Denmark and the Netherlands and may do so in Germany in September.

Chirac first appointed the hitherto little-known Raffarin on May 6 to lead an interim government after his re-election at the expense of his previous prime minister, Socialist Lionel Jospin, who resigned when Le Pen edged him out of the presidential race. Raffarin, whose provincial, common touch came as a breath of fresh air for voters tired of haughty rule by a Parisian elite, met Chirac to offer his resignation in keeping with electoral tradition. But his confirmation came as no surprise.

Officials said he would name a largely unchanged but bigger cabinet on Tuesday. However, European Affairs Minister Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres resigned in a move that was expected because he is being investigated over party funding irregularities.

That was a small reminder of the sleaze that dogged Chirac’s first term and which took a back seat during two rollercoaster months of double-round presidential and parliamentary elections.

Indeed, Chirac owes his refound power more to voters’ rejection of the far-right — after Le Pen’s shock resurgence in the first round of the presidential election — and a rejection of power-sharing rather than a popular embrace of his policies.

“Things are better now, the government will be more plausible, it can get things done,” said Gerard Escaish, a right-wing voter as he stood outside a Paris cafe.

The newly elected legislators from the UMP, the first grouping to unite most factions of the center-right in modern French politics, were due to meet over dinner on Monday.

On Tuesday, they are expected to name former premier and Chirac confidant Alain Juppe — a man with distinct presidential ambitions for 2007 — as the new movement’s leader.

Government spokesman Jean-Francois Coppe told RTL radio that the new administration would get down to business very quickly in a special summer parliamentary session next month to show that it was not in power by chance.