New French prime minister, already facing strike, labors to form government

Newly appointed Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin gave himself 100 days to "give the French back their confidence" and has vowed to account to the people each month for his actions, one senator quoted him as saying Wednesday.

"He is convinced he can find the means and the solutions" to do so by the start of September, Roger Karoutchi quoted Villepin as telling a gathering of senators from the governing party.

On his first day in the job, Villepin was still trying to form a government credible and able enough to tackle the top priority, unemployment. However, he also faced his first test, labor unrest.

A planned strike by workers at the national train authority, the SNCF, was due to begin at 8 p.m. (1800GMT), emblematic of the tough road ahead for a government drawing criticism even before it has been formed. It was not clear when the Cabinet would be named, with some suggesting it might be as late as Friday.

President Jacques Chirac, addressing the nation Tuesday evening hours after appointing Villepin, - his former protege - set reducing France's 10 percent jobless rate as the No. 1 priority. He called on unions and employers to pitch in.

Meeting with senators from the center-right majority Wednesday, Villepin sketched a "direction of action, boldness and mobilization" to pull France out of the "extremely difficult situation" it was thrown into by France's rejection of a European Union constitution. The Sunday referendum was as much a disavowal of French leaders as a "no" to the EU charter.

"Each month, I will account for my action and the results to the French," participants at the meeting quoted Villepin as saying. He said the senators would have a role in the in the process. The prime minister's office "will be your home. My door will always be open to you," Villepin said.

The offer was a clear bid to narrow the widening gulf between the people and its leaders that all sides conclude was partly to blame for the "no" victory in Sunday's referendum.

Villepin was to appear on television Wednesday night.

The appointment of Villepin, who has never held elected office and seems to epitomize France's privileged class, was quickly criticized as a non-response to the problem.

Chirac named Villepin in an effort to give "new impetus" to the government after France rejected the EU's first constitution.

Villepin faced an uphill battle in forming a government that would respond to citizens' discontent.

Finding politicians willing to serve could complicate the task. The centrist Union for French Democracy, an important component of the breadth Chirac's right needs to assure credibility, announced Tuesday night that it would not be part of the new team.

Villepin's own appointment was met with a flurry of criticism. A former career diplomat whose name has an aristocrat ring, Villepin is seen as a product of the Chirac machine.

Chirac also named Nicolas Sarkozy, his ambitious rival and a potential presidential candidate in 2007, to the No. 2 post heading the interior ministry. It is a combination that the daily Le Parisien dubbed in bold headlines "Explosif!"

On the left, Socialist Party leader Francois Hollande on Wednesday criticized the "confusion" that he said the Villepin-Sarkozy team represents with "two prime ministers following two different policies."

EMMANUEL GEORGES-PICOT, Associated Press Writer

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