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Chirac to act soon over poll rout

Chirac, left, plucked Raffarin from obscurity in 2002.
Jacques Chirac
Jean-Pierre Raffarin

PARIS, France -- French President Jacques Chirac will respond in the next few days to the rout of his governing conservatives in regional elections, aides say.

A Cabinet reshuffle was widely predicted on Monday and the fate of unpopular welfare reforms hung in the balance, one day after opposition Socialists swept to victory in mid-term polls.

In the presidency's first comment on the elections, Chirac's office said he was "working with the Prime Minister (Jean-Pierre Raffarin) on decisions he will take over the next few days," Reuters reported. Officials gave no other details.

Chirac's center-right party lost control of nearly all the country's regional assemblies in Sunday's election.

The Socialist Party and its allies won about 50 percent of the vote and about 20 of 22 regions in mainland France and Corsica, buoyed by discontent with the government's policies.

Chirac's center-right UMP party won about 37 percent and ended up with only region, Alsace in eastern France, while the anti-immigration National Front Party of Jean-Marie Le Pen polled 13 percent of the vote.

Media commentators on Monday saw the defeat as a rejection of Raffarin's government and its reforms of health care and the social security system.

Daily newspapers on both sides of the political divide said the government would be forced to change course and even discussed the possibility of an early general election.

"Sunday's vote was directly aimed at Jacques Chirac, who the country has in fact asked ... to dissolve the National Assemby," said the business daily La Tribune.

"Everybody's wondering about Jean-Pierre Raffarin's future," Europe 1 Radio said.

The defeat, Chirac's first national test since he and his party swept presidential and legislative polls in 2002, marked a dramatic turnaround from a year ago, when he won praise within France for his opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Despite the stunning election defeat, the prime minister remained defiant. "The reforms must continue simply because they are necessary," Raffarin insisted on national television.

He defended his government's policies, but added: "I understand that worry and impatience come together in this express of discontent. Policies must be more efficient and fair, and it is certain that some changes must be made."

Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande disagreed, telling Reuters: "From now on, the response cannot be found in a government reshuffle, whatever its scope, but in a major change in the direction of the government."

Chirac's dilemma

CNN's European Political Editor Robin Oakley said the reforms -- necessary to revive France's ailing economy -- had damaged Chirac's popularity and divided France, sparking protests and strikes. But he predicted that Raffarin would stay.

"Chirac plucked Raffarin from obscurity and can get rid of him if he wants to ... but when would be the right time to do that? Chirac still has to push through the painful health reforms so better for Raffarin to stay on and carry the unpopularity ... rather than appoint a new man.

"The other problem for Chirac is that Nicolas Sarkozy, successful as interior minister and popular with the French public, is the natural person to put in as prime minister instead.

"But Chirac doesn't want the glory going to Sarkozy because he has dropped heavy hints he wants to run for president himself in 2007. Chirac doesn't like that at all so he doesn't want to build up Sarkozy.

"I think he'll probably hang onto Raffarin, go through the European parliament elections in June when there is likely to be more anti-government reaction, let him carry the unpopularity of that, and a few more reforms, before making big changes."

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