French President Jacques Chirac, reeling from a humiliating referendum defeat, has reshuffled the government in a battle to heal rifts in a deeply divided country following the rejection of the European Union (EU) constitutional treaty.
As the French media and opinion polls reacted with skepticism over the reshuffle, the first mission of newly appointed Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, Chirac's loyalist, will no doubt be to tackle the top priority of unemployment, analysts said. The disastrous May 29 referendum defeat was widely seen as the by-product of a "general discontent" in France, feeding on high unemployment, fears of competition from foreign low-cost economies, and a chronic mistrust of the French government.
Unemployment is running at 10 percent, rising to 23.3 percent among the under-25s. The 55 percent "no" vote to the EU constitutional treaty drew heavily on the unemployed, blue-collar workers and farmers.
The 51-year-old Villepin, since taking office on Tuesday, has given himself 100 days to "give the French back their confidence" and vowed to wage the fight against unemployment.
"The major battle that we are going to lead -- the president of the republic set out the blueprint -- is the battle for jobs. That will be the priority of this government, and I'm personally going to lead that battle," he said on French news channel TF1.
"We can no longer accept an unemployment rate in this country of more than 10 percent," he added.
At the first cabinet meeting on Friday, Chirac called on the new cabinet for unity and cohesion, saying "the period that we pass is difficult for France. We'll surpass it by assembling the French people, by our union, by our action."
"We have two years to rise to the challenge of employment," said the president, hinting at the presidential and legislative elections in 2007.
"Everyone measures the hugeness of the work incumbent on us, everyone measures the impatience and the expectations that the French voters expressed on May 29" by rejecting the EU charter, said Villepin.
"The big battle of the government is employment with the constant concern of pragmatism and social dialogue."
Promising to produce results within 100 days -- by early September -- the prime minister said it was necessary to "remove the obstacles, remove the difficulties which exist in the labor market -- both on the side of business and the side of job-seekers.
"However, a survey made for the French daily of Le Dimanche showed that a total of 68 percent of French people did not believe the new government could win back confidence to the French people within 100 days, though they qualified Villepin as "dynamic, competent, undertaker of a project for the country and capable to reassemble the French."
According to the French "no" camp, Sunday's "no" vote was also directed against "Anglo-Saxon" economics and any idea that intends to defy the so-called French social model of high welfare protection.
"Dominique de Villepin runs the risk of a serious social and political crisis if ... the massive vote against Europe's liberal direction results in the surrender of more social rights, especially on the labor code," said Henri Emmanuelli, an advocator of "no" camp in the French Socialist Party.
The challenges faced by the government would be further complicated by the nomination of Nicolas Sarkozy as interior minister, an ambitious politician and a potential presidential candidate in 2007.
French financial daily La Tribune described Chirac's choice of Villepin and Sarkozy as "curious, to say the least," adding: "It��s common knowledge that these two strong characters ... don't like each other."
It also questioned how the two could handle their competing ambitions: "At the best, we can expect sparks. At the worst, we could see a raging fire that would burn the government's action to
While Villepin called himself as "a pragmatist deeply attached to the French model which reconciles solidarity with freedom of initiative," Sarkozy openly called for radical liberalization of the system and has made no secret of his desire to replace the 72-year-old President Chirac in 2007.