French President Jacques Chirac expected to name new prime minister

President Jacques Chirac was expected to replace his unpopular prime minister on Tuesday, two days after French voters dealt the government a punishing blow by rejecting the European Union's new constitution.

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin called aides together Monday to bid them farewell. The aides were seen packing up boxes as Raffarin met with Chirac.

Raffarin, in office since May 2002, has made enemies by pushing through a series of difficult reforms to France's cherished social programs, including pensions, and failing to chip away at unemployment, now at 10 percent.

Chirac's office said he will announce "his decisions regarding the government" on Tuesday and address the nation in the evening.

Leading candidates for the prime minister's job are Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin, Nicolas Sarkozy, the ambitious head of the governing party, and Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie. They were among more than a half-dozen potential choices summoned to the presidential palace on Monday.

Villepin, 51, a former foreign minister, is best known for his eloquent defense of the French stance against a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Villepin is a long-standing Chirac loyalist and once his top counselor. However, he is an unpopular choice among lawmakers opposed to a prime minister who has never held elected office.

Sarkozy, 50, the ambitious head of the governing party, is another top option but one that holds risks. Chirac's main rival with an eye on the 2007 presidential election, Sarkozy has made clear that he would want freedom to maneuver _ a condition that could diminish Chirac's presidential power. Polls have shown that Sarkozy, a two-time minister, would be the most popular choice with the people.

Alliot-Marie, 58, the defense minister and a Chirac loyalist, could be a compromise choice between the outspoken Sarkozy and the aristocratic Villepin.

Sunday's referendum on an EU constitution was a humiliating blow to Chirac and a disavowal of his government, left reeling by the decisive victory of those rejecting the constitution _ some 55 percent. It also was a huge blow to the European Union. The constitution must be approved by all 25 EU members in order to come into effect.

Polls, analysts and voters confirmed that some people voted "no" to the constitution to punish a government they feel has failed them.

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