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Chirac appoints new prime minister

Raffarin played a key role in Chirac's election campaign  

PARIS, France -- Conservative senator Jean-Pierre Raffarin has been named interim prime minister of France, succeeding Lionel Jospin who resigned on Monday along with his government.

Former small businesses minister Raffarin, 53, a loyalist of the re-elected centre-right President Jacques Chirac, will now form an interim government ahead of June parliamentary elections.

Jospin had announced he was retiring from French politics after his humiliating defeat by National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in the April 21 first-round presidential vote.

Chirac was voted in for a second term on Sunday in a landslide defeat for Le Pen.

Although Raffarin is little-known outside political circles, he played a key role in Chirac's re-election campaign and observers say his relative obscurity could be an asset as the president seeks to counter widespread perceptions that the Parisian power elite is arrogant and isolated.

Socialist Jospin, 64, tendered his resignation earlier on Monday during a 13-minute visit to the Elysee Palace home of conservative President Jacques Chirac.

Despite losing the presidential election in France, Jean-Marie Le Pen is pleased with his party's showing. CNN's Chris Burns reports (May 6)

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French President Jacques Chirac appoints conservative Sen. Jean-Pierre Raffarin as interim prime minister. CNN's Chris Burns reports (May 6)

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The focus of French politics now shifts to next month's crucial legislative elections and Chirac will look to Raffarin to help him try to rally the right to victory.

But Raffarin may not hold the post for long -- if the right fails to gain a majority of seats in the National Assembly next month, Chirac will be forced to appoint a leftist prime minister after the legislative election, ushering in a new period of "cohabitation" -- an uncomfortable power-sharing pact that would be disastrous for Chirac, stripping him of much of his power.

Chirac has already lived through five tense years of governance alongside Jospin, and he has vowed to prevent a similar situation this time around.

Interior Ministry figures show Chirac won around 82 percent of Sunday's vote, compared to 18 percent for Le Pen, whose success in the presidential run-off two weeks ago shocked France. (Full story)

Chirac, of the Gaullist Rally for the Republic party, said he recognised that his massive victory was due to the left-wing voting to keep Le Pen out rather than voting him in.

"I heard and I understood your call so that the Republic lives, so that the nation rallies together, so that politics change," Chirac said in a victory speech. (Full story)

Voter apathy was largely seen as the main contributor for Le Pen reaching the run-off -- the closest a far-right candidate has got to achieving power in the history of the Fifth Republic.

Chirac, 69, registered the lowest score of an incumbent president in the first round.

Turnout in Sunday's vote topped 80 percent. In the first round of presidential balloting, only about three-quarters of the voters turned out.

Liberation newspaper's front page on Monday showed a tiny photo of Le Pen retreating, under an enormous one-word headline: "Phew!" while Le Figaro's front page featured a picture of a beaming Chirac under the headline: "The immense victory."

Le Pen, 73, accused of being racist and anti-Semitic, attacked the "morbid coalition."

"The political conditions under which the second round was held were those of a totalitarian country," Le Pen said, referring to the unprecedented banding together of politicians, unions and leaders in numerous fields to work toward his defeat.

Le Pen, who said last week he would consider any score under 30 percent a failure, vowed to take his revenge in June 9 and 16 legislative elections with his anti-immigration National Front party.

Analysts say that in the legislative elections, Chirac will be hoping to avoid "cohabitation" with a Socialist government.

Early projections indicate he might be successful. The Sofres polling firm showed on Sunday that Chirac was likely gain a majority with between 271 and 331 of the 557 National Assembly seats, with the left gaining between 232-272 seats, The Associated Press reported.

The projection gave Le Pen's National Front between one and three seats.




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