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French working class hurt economy with 10perc unemployment

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French pollsters found the working class -- feeling the brunt of the country's economic doldrums and 10 percent unemployment rate -- and those living outside major cities, were more likely to have voted against the charter.

French 'non' triggers political change

By Elizabeth Bryant

Paris, France, May. 30 (UPI) -- Sunday's rejection by French voters of the European constitution has thrown France into a profound political crisis, with the center-right government in turmoil and the major opposition Socialist party profoundly divided.

Now, the day after nearly 55 percent of French voted "no" to the EU charter, it is far from clear just how the two parties will pull together the shards of their shattered ranks to construct viable political voices ahead of the 2007 presidential elections.

The first steps toward a government reshuffle appeared to be taking place Monday morning, when France's unpopular Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin arrived for a brief interview at the Elysee presidential palace. Raffarin, whose popularity ratings have sunk to the mid-20 percentage points has been widely expected to step down, regardless of the referendum's outcome.

And in a brief, televised address Sunday night, French President Jacques Chirac all but confirmed it, promising his audience that he would respond to "your concerns and your expectations," and vowing a "new and strong impulse" in the government's actions.

A tangle of emotions lay behind France's anti-constitution sentiments. Some voters feared the treaty will roll back generous social benefits, or would help pave the way for Turkey's entry into the EU -- which many French oppose.

But many also cast a protest vote against Chirac's center-right government, whose reforms have sparked a wave of nationwide strikes this year. French pollsters found the working class -- feeling the brunt of the country's economic doldrums and 10 percent unemployment rate -- and those living outside major cities, were more likely to have voted against the charter.

The short-list of possible candidates to replace Raffarin includes France's Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin and Chirac's arch rival Nicolas Sarkozy, head of his ruling Union for a Popular Movement party.

The two men could not be more different.

Sarkozy is short, dark-haired and pugnacious, a natural and popular politician known for his results-oriented approach. De Villepin, who earned the ire of the United States for his anti-Iraq-war discourses at the United Nations is a tall, silver-haired and cerebral.

Unlike Sarkozy, de Villepin has never run for an elected post.

But both men have called recently for the injection of new vitality and fundamental changes in the government and within the ruling UMP party, ahead of the 2007 presidential elections.

"The 22 months that separate us from the next decisive elections for our country must be used to found a new hope," Sarkozy said Sunday night, following the referendum results. "We need to design an innovative, ambitious program of action" which means a major overhaul in the party's economic and social policy.

French Defense Minister Michelle Alliot Marie is considered a third likely candidate to succeed Raffarin. She may lack the charisma of Sarkozy and de Villepin, but she has earned widespread respect during her marathon political career -- which includes a stint as head of Chirac's former Rally for the Republic party.

Alliot-Marie also has a reputation as a conciliator, a valuable quality in heading a government riddled with rivalries and egos. But some pundits believe if Alliot-Marie takes over the party helm, de Villepin is likely to leave the government.

But critics have been quick to denounce Chirac and his government, suggesting whatever action the president takes will be insufficient to address France's crisis.

"Chirac: The end of a Disastrous Reign" the leftist Liberation newspaper titled one of its Monday articles.

"The place of Chirac in History will be more than ever marked by this date of 29 May, 2005," it wrote in a withering analysis. "Hardly glorious."

"They'll be a government reshuffle, a new prime minister," predicted opposition Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande in remarks Monday morning to France-Info radio. But those actions did not respond, he said, to "a country that has expressed in many different ways -- and not just through the 'no' -- an anger toward the [ruling] power."

"I have no illusions regarding the head of state," Hollande added. "I expect nothing from him."

Chirac, who marked his 10 years in office this month, could yet rebound. This is hardly the first time he has been written off.

The French president lost another disastrous gamble in 1997, when he called for early parliamentary elections in the face of massive French opposition to his government's reforms. Contrary to his expectations, the electorate voted in the opposition socialists, forcing Chirac to live in an uneasy five-year cohabitation.

But Chirac went on to win the 2002 presidential election by a landslide, trouncing far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen with more than 82 percent of the vote in the second round. Months later, his center-right UMP party again ruled the parliament and government.

France's opposition Socialist Party is also entering a painful period of soul searching and reform. The party split bitterly over the constitution, with the majority backing leader Hollande in favor of a "yes" to the European constitution.

But a significant minority campaigned actively for the "no," under former French prime minister Laurent Fabius. Today, there is open warfare between Hollande and Fabius, the party's number one and two men.

Hollande indicated Monday he had no intention of ceding the party power to Fabius with the victory of the "no."

"To those who didn't respect the votes of the militants?" he asked when posed the question on France Info. " those who profoundly divided the party? Frankly, no."

Today, the party appears rudderless, with no obvious leader in the wings since the 2002 retirement of then-prime minister Lionel Jospin.

Indeed, some commentators speculate that Jospin, increasingly in the limelight as he campaigned in favor of the European Constitution, might now come in rescue of the party despite his previous vow to leave politics for good.

The fallout of a French no will spread far beyond the nation's borders, observers predict. It will mean a lower European profile in the Middle East and Africa, as the block debates its future, wrote French analyst Francois Heisbourg.

"A navel-gazing, disengaged Europe is not going to be of much help in a world in which the United States has few other friends of similar economic and political weight," Heisbourg added, in an opinion published in Thursday's International Herald Tribune.

In another interview published in France's conservative Le Figaro Monday, U.S. analyst Simon Serfaty agreed.

"This defeat doesn't only weaken Europe in the world," he said. "It risks forcing the United States to reinforce its role because its privileged ally appears to have put itself on the sidelines" just as Bush is beginning to learn how to spell EU, Serfaty said.

The obvious winners in Sunday's results are the hodgepodge of small political parties and activist groups that campaigned in favor of the no.

The referendum's defeat is expected to provide the platform to launch yet another presidential bid by 76-year-old Le Pen, who placed second in the 2002 race.

It has also offered a lift to the embattled French Communist party and an assortment of far-left and anti-globalization groups. But their political windfall may be short-lived, analysts suggest. Le Monde newspaper Monday described theirs as a "Pyrrhic victory."

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