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De Villepin Named French Prime Minister

Newly named French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, right, shakes hands with his predecessor Jean-Pierre Raffarin after a hand over ceremony in Paris
French President Jacques Chirac named close ally Dominique de Villepin to be the country's new prime minister Tuesday, making good his promise of government changes after voters rejected the European constitution on Sunday.

Outgoing Prime Minister Jean Pierre Raffarin made a short speech outside his offices Tuesday afternoon, flanked by his successor, former Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin.

In Mr. de Villepin, Mr. Raffarin said, President Chirac can count on a loyal ally to finish his five-year term as president. And the French can count on their new Prime Minister to respond to their aspirations.

Mr. Chirac is expected to explain the government reshuffle on television Tuesday night. He promised such changes Sunday night, after nearly 55-percent of French voted against the EU constitution.

Most observers expected Mr. Raffarin would leave the government regardless of the outcome of the referendum. During his three years in power, Mr. Raffarin's popularity steadily fell to lows of 25-percent and less, as he pushed through unpopular reforms.

In choosing Mr. de Villepin to head his government, Mr. Chirac acted on the side of loyalty, rather than naming another potential candidate, Nicolas Sarkozy, the popular head of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement party.

Many analysts believe Mr. Sarkozy may be picked as the country's new interior minister, a job he has had before.

Tall, gray-haired Mr. de Villepin is a charismatic politician. He earned an international reputation for his passionate speeches at the United Nations against the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

But he has never held an elected office, and some critics consider him emblematic of the allegedly aloof political establishment which many French voters sanctioned Sunday when they rejected the EU constitution.

Jean-Marc Ayrault, a deputy for the opposition Socialist Party predicted Mr. de Villepin will be unable to launch the reforms France needs.

In an interview on France Info radio Mr. Ayrault said Mr. de Villepin would be unable to address critical economic and social problems. He said the center-right government has lost all credibility with French voters.