PARIS, France — French President Jacques Chirac has appointed loyalist Dominique de Villepin as prime minister after French voters rejected the European Union Constitution — throwing the future direction of the 25-nation organization into doubt.
As France’s foreign minister from 2002 to 2004, Villepin gained a worldwide reputation for his impassioned defense of the French stance against a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
Villepin, 51, replaces Jean-Pierre Raffarin — the first government casualty after France said no to adopting the constitution in Sunday’s referendum. The document lays out a new framework for the union, which added 10 members a year ago, and creates the permanent positions of president and foreign minister.
On Tuesday, Villepin arrived at the presidential Elysee Palace just minutes after Chirac bid farewell to Raffarin with a handshake on the palace steps.
In a short statement, Raffarin, who was prime minister for three years, denied his departure was connected to the referendum.
Villepin is a long-standing Chirac loyalist and was once his top adviser. Critics point to his never having held elective office.
Later Tuesday, Chirac said in a televised address that he was bringing Nicolas Sarkozy, a two-time minister and potential rival, back into the new government “in a spirit of coming together.
Villepin had been widely tipped to replace the unpopular Raffarin, whose economic reforms and poor record on jobs were blamed for the scale of Sunday’s referendum defeat.
With votes counted in all of France and its overseas territories, the “No” camp had 54.87 percent, with only 45.13 percent voting “Yes,” according to figures released by France’s Interior Ministry.
Analysts say the defeat was humiliating for Chirac, who had campaigned heavily for a “Yes” vote. France, a founding member of the European Union, was the first country to reject the charter.
Chirac is the second French leader, after Gen. Charles de Gaulle, to lose a referendum since the founding of the French Fifth Republic in 1958.
Chirac and other backers had argued that establishing the framework for the union would streamline the organization, let Europe speak with one voice on global issues and strengthen the euro.
But opponents argued that it would diminish French national identity and sovereignty and lead to an influx of cheap labor just as France struggles to reduce unemployment.
That unemployment rate — along with EU polices, slow economic growth, conflict between France’s pledge to reduce its public deficit and Chirac’s pledge to cut income taxes and other reform plans — all offer challenges for de Villepin as he tries to steer France for the final two years of Chirac’s term in office.
Chirac says he intends to meet with EU leaders in Brussels on June 16 and “defend the position of our country.”
European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso said leaders “need to do more to explain the true dimension of what is at stake, and the nature of the solutions which only Europe can bring.”
“There will be time for that debate, of course, but I think one thing is sure: we should, together, try to put Europe back on track again,” Barroso said.
Several European countries said they would proceed with their own referendums on the EU constitution despite France’s rejection.
Polls in the Netherlands, which holds its own referendum on the constitution on Wednesday, suggest the “No” camp there is leading by 60-40 percent, and the momentum is likely to gain with the defeat in France.
But British Prime Minister Tony Blair said the EU needed time to reflect on the French result and that it was too soon to say if Britain would press ahead with a referendum.
“What is important now is to have time for reflection, with the Dutch referendum in a couple of days’ time and the European Council in the middle of June, where all the leaders can discuss the implications of the vote that has taken place,” he told reporters. (Full story)
Regardless of the votes in France and the Netherlands, a European Commission spokesman said the ratification process for the constitution would go ahead.
“The procedures have been completed in nine countries representing over 220 million citizens. That is almost 49 percent of EU population. The Commission thinks this is a very important reason why the ratification procedures should go forward,” Mikolaj Dowgielewicz told The Associated Press.