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French prime minister resigns after voters reject EU constitution

PARIS—French Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin resigned Tuesday and President Jacques Chirac replaced him with Dominique de Villepin as aftershocks continued from the country's rejection of a new European Union constitution.

French voters on Sunday showed their dissatisfaction with Chirac's government and the constitution.

The constitution was intended to simplify the process of running an expanded union, now made up of 25 independent nations. When leaders were mapping out a path for a proposed European constitution, votes in France and the Netherlands—charter members and longtime advocates of the European Union—were seen as places to prove that unity was growing.

Now, after French voters defeated it Sunday by a 55-45 percent margin and as Dutch voters go to the polls Wednesday appearing to be even more strongly opposed, it looks as if the constitution is crippled. British Prime Minister Tony Blair reportedly might scrap a constitution vote that had been planned for 2006.

Raffarin had been the point man in the government's support of the constitution and was blamed for its defeat. Immediately after, French news media said he was too weak to be an effective leader, especially because recent polls had shown his approval rating dipping to around 25 percent.

In a televised speech Tuesday, Chirac told the nation that fear of unemployment and instability—thought to be primary reasons behind the defeat of the constitution—should be overcome.

"We are capable of winning the war of employment all while remaining true to ourselves," he said. He added that Villepin "knows that France has the capacity, if given the means, to be strong, while remaining loyal to its republican traditions and loyal to its social contract."

Adrien Blanchet, 25, of Paris, said despite voting for the constitution, he saw little future in Chirac's government after French voters rejected the document.

"Villepin will have a hard time passing laws," he said.

Villepin is mostly known in the United States for his criticism during the buildup to the Iraq war. Before the invasion of Iraq, Villepin, who was then France's foreign minister, said to the United Nations: "In this temple of the United Nations, we are the guardians of an ideal, the guardians of conscience. This onerous responsibility and immense honor we have must lead us to give priority to disarmament through peace."

France is hardly the only European nation with troubles. In Germany, Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder recently called for a national election in 2006, a year before it was scheduled, after his Social Democrat party was defeated soundly in elections in its stronghold state, the equivalent of a Republican sweep in Massachusetts.

Canan Atilgan, the coordinator of European policy studies at the Konrad Adenauer Stiftung, a political research center headquartered near Bonn, Germany, said the issues that disenchanted German voters were the same that bothered many French and probably would motivate "no" voters Wednesday in the Netherlands.

"There's a core of economic fears—fears of losing jobs, of losing job security, of the threat of inexpensive Eastern European labor—behind voters," she said.

She said that while political and intellectual elites—the term for those who have run the European Union—favored the expansion last year to 25 nations, everyday citizens did not.

They see rising unemployment across Western Europe—as well as business relocations, such as the move of a Renault plant from France to Romania—as a sign of the difficulties caused by a Europe that's too large.

"Europeans fear an American-style free market, which they feel fails to provide social protection to the workers," she said.

Julie Smith, the deputy director of England's Cambridge University Centre of International Studies, said the British reaction generally had been relief.

The British were planning a vote on the constitution, probably for summer 2006, and it would have been a very tough sell. She said it was impossible to see Blair going ahead with the referendum if the constitution were defeated in the Netherlands as well as France.

"Europe is in crisis over this, but mostly because the political leadership keeps insisting this is a crisis," she said. "If the end result is a European-wide debate on the direction of a new constitution, these defeats could be a positive."

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(Matthew Schofield in Berlin contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

GRAPHICS (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20050531 EUVOTE Netherlands, 20050531 France PM bio

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