June 30, 2005

French PM dismisses talk of rivalry in new govt

By Helene Fontanaud

PARIS (Reuters) - French Prime Minister Dominique deVillepin dismissed talk of rivalry with his powerful number twoon Thursday and pinned his colors firmly to the mast ofPresident Jacques Chirac.

Villepin dedicated his first news conference since takingoffice to the battle against unemployment, saying results werenot yet good enough but the groundwork was being prepared for amajor attack on France's key economic problem.

"I want to be judged on results," he said, shortly afternew data showed the unemployment rate remained firmlyentrenched at a 5-year-high of 10.2 percent in May.

Villepin soon found himself answering questions about hisrelationship with his ally Chirac, who appointed him on May 31,and his interior minister and number two, Nicolas Sarkozy.

Economists and political commentators say the relationshipbetween Villepin, 51, and Sarkozy, 50, will be vital to thepolitical and economic success of the government as Franceprepares for presidential and parliamentary elections in 2007.

Sarkozy's outspoken comments on a range of matters haveoften stolen the limelight from Villepin in the government'sfirst month, and the two could yet be rivals to become thecenter-right's candidate in the 2007 presidential election.

Villepin said he was committed to unity.

"I am not a jealous person," Villepin said. "I am not hereto say Villepin did this, or Villepin did that. And that is notthe spirit of any of us. We are here to make things move."

He refused to be drawn into direct comment on Sarkozy'ssuggestion that he might quit as interior minister at the endof 2006 -- clearly to prepare a presidential campaign.

"Every member of the government is clearly a free personand what I want is that everyone does their best in the teamwhile they are part of it," Villepin said.


The dashing prime minister took words from Sarkozy's scriptby vowing to be pragmatic in his work and realistic in hisassessment of the economic situation.

Villepin, who as foreign minister bitterly criticized theUnited States before the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, haslargely dropped his flowery rhetoric for more punchy anddown-to-earth speeches since taking office.

"You would perhaps want something more spectacular (interms of results) but in a government you must start fromreality as it is," he said.

"We are in a country that today faces big difficulties. Weare with our compatriots who are worried, troubled, sometimesangry. The first thing we must do is restore some credit topolitical action."

Villepin made clear that Chirac, 72, was still runningFrance even though he has suffered a series of setbacks and hispopularity is in freefall.

"He is at the helm, he said. "Whatever the difficulties,the captain of the ship, in good weather or bad, is the one whosets the course."