June 26, 2006

Chirac stands by his prime minister

PARIS (Reuters) - French President Jacques Chirac rebuffed
pressure on Monday to sack Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin
and promised to stand by his conservative government despite a
series of political setbacks and gaffes.

The president, who has faced widespread calls from members
of his own UMP party to remove Villepin, said in a television
interview the government was proving successful in reducing
unemployment, lifting the economy and reforming the state.

"I don't see why I should change a government today that
has perfectly fulfilled its mission," he told France 2

Chirac said it would be up to the French people to judge
the government at elections set for 2007, indicating that
Villepin would stay at his post until the end of the

The president pulled the plug on his previous government in
May 2005 when the French people handed it a stunning rebuke,
voting in a referendum to reject a European Union Constitution.

After a brief honeymoon period, Villepin's star has waned
dramatically following widespread rioting in the suburbs, a
failed bid to loosen up employment laws and accusations he
tried to smear his own interior minister.

Last week, Villepin triggered a fresh political storm when
he denounced the opposition leader as a coward.

The prime minister later withdrew the insult but not before
numerous UMP deputies called openly for his resignation, saying
he was a liability ahead of the 2007 presidential and
parliamentary elections.

Chirac, 73, won a second successive term as president in
2002, but his health has declined in recent months and he is
widely expected to retire when his mandate expires.

But asked about his political future, Chirac said he would
only announce a decision in the first three months of next

"This is a question that one poses ... You should know in
the first quarter (of 2007) when I'll have taken a decision and
decided to announce it," he said.