By Ray Fleming
l France's new prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, has never held elected office but he has another claim to distinction. In 2002, at the height of the disagreements over Iraq in the UN Security Council, he was France's ambassador to the United Nations and an one memorable occasion won an unprecedented and extremely undiplomatic round of applause in the Council chamber for a speech criticising the United States and Britain for their determination to go to war against Iraq without UN authorisation. He was eloquent, passionate and unsparing in his insistence that there was an acceptable and effective alternative to military action. It is fascinating that President Chirac should have chosen M. de Villepin to succeed the provincial politician Jean–Pierre Raffarin as prime minister. It is widely believed in France, and elsewhere, that the referendum vote against the EU constitution was in large measure a protest against the President's elitist belief in the EU as a French creation which the French people should support almost as a matter of duty, regardless of their negative impression of its effect on their standard of living. M. de Villepin can hardly be thought of as someone with his pulse on the finger of public opinion, or on the administrative mechanisms necessary to respond to that opinion. He is, in a word, elitist, very much in the mould of President Chirac himself and, of course, of Valery Giscard d'Estaign the former president who was the main force behind the preparation of the constitution. Provisional analyses of the referendum polling indicate that only professionals, graduates and pensioners were solid in their support for the constitution; some 80 per cent of blue–collar workers were opposed, faced with the spectre of more than 10 per cent unemployment. Paris was strongly in favour and cities such as Bordeaux, Lyon and Strasbourg were supportive; but Lille, Marseille and Nice were strongly opposed. Crucially, the decision of the Socialist Party leadership to back the constitution was not followed by its grass–roots membership which opposed it by 56–44 per cent.

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