June 26, 2006

President Chirac defends unpopular French PM

By Crispian Balmer

PARIS (Reuters) - French President Jacques Chirac stood by
beleaguered Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin on Monday,
saying his government was producing good results despite a
string of recent setbacks and controversies.

"I don't see why I should change a government today that
has perfectly fulfilled its mission," he told France 2
television, giving a rare interview in an effort to calm the
political turbulence less than a year before presidential

Chirac has faced widespread calls from members of his own
UMP party to remove Villepin, whose impulsive, impassioned
style has sparked a series of fierce rows, pushing his
popularity rating to near record lows.

But Chirac said Villepin should be judged solely on his
record, adding that his government was cutting unemployment,
reviving the economy and enacting important reforms.

"I am not here to give marks to one person or another. What
I say is we have a prime minister who is totally dedicated to
his job (and carries it out) with determination and dynamism."

In the months ahead, he said he wanted to see his
conservative administration tackle justice reform, enact new
measures to reduce juvenile crime and help youth employment.

Chirac said it would be up to the French people to decide
the fate of the government at elections set for 2007,
indicating that Villepin would stay on 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.


Under Villepin, the unemployment rate has fallen from a
five-year high of 10.2 percent in May 2005 to 9.3 percent in
April, while economic growth rose in the first quarter to 0.5
percent against 0.3 percent in the final three months of last

But despite the economic achievements, Villepin's political
star has waned following widespread rioting in the suburbs, a
failed bid to loosen up employment laws and accusations he
tried to smear his own interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy.

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

He was also forced to postpone his plans to merge French
gas distributor Gaz de France and utility Suez because of
opposition from UMP parliamentarians.

But an upbeat Chirac said the project, aimed at heading off
an Italian takeover of Suez, was still on track.

"It will be adopted during an extraordinary session at the
beginning of September simply because it's a project we have to
do," he said in the live interview from his Elysee Palace.

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 in 2007.

But when asked about his political future, Chirac said he
would only announce a decision next year.

"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.