Politicians find it difficult to unify the troops after election landslide


FRANCE: It took Chirac and his Prime Minister nearly 48 hours to form a government, writes Lara Marlowe in Paris

The memory of France's landslide victory on Sunday over the extreme right is still fresh, but politicians are finding it difficult to unify their troops before next month's legislative elections.

It took the President, Mr Jacques Chirac, and his new Prime Minister, Mr Jean-Pierre Raffarin, nearly 48 hours to form a government, mainly because of in-fighting on the centre-right.

The government was supposed to have been announced in the morning, but Mr Raffarin scurried back and forth between his office and the Élysée all day, negotiating and submitting new lists to the President.

The "streamlined team" of at most 15 ministers swelled to 27 because Mr Chirac's supporters had to be placated. The presence of six women is hardly a blow for equal rights; four of the six are junior ministers.

Only Ms Michele Alliot-Marie, the president of Mr Chirac's Gaullist RPR party, has broken new ground, becoming France's first female defence minister.

Mr Nicolas Sarkozy, the former budget minister and mayor of Neuilly who believed he, not Mr Raffarin, should be Prime Minister, finally accepted a "super ministry" of the interior and security, but on condition that he be second only to Mr Raffarin, and that he work directly with Mr Chirac.

Reducing crime is the greatest challenge facing the new government, and the security ministry is hardly a gift. Mr Sarkozy has a reputation for being to the right of the mainstream right. Insiders joke privately that he will take on the immigrant banlieues in the spirit that Mr Ariel Sharon has repressed the Israeli-occupied territories.

Another failed prime ministerial hopeful, Mr Philippe Douste-Blazy, held up the formation of the government by turning down the education portfolio. The education ministry has the biggest budget, but, in a sour grapes mood, Mr Douste said he would rather keep his job as mayor of Toulouse.

Mr Raffarin settled on the philosopher Mr Luc Ferry, a friend of Mr Chirac's who is without political experience.

The desire to open the government to civil society was also evident in the choice of finance minister Mr Francis Mer, the chairman of the steel and mining company Arcelor.

The former secretary-general of the Élysée, Mr Dominique Villepin, is foreign minister. The sub-ministry for European affairs was entrusted to the UDF deputy Mr Renaud Donnedieu de Vabres instead of Ms Nicole Fontaine.

At socialist party headquarters, the former employment minister, Mrs Martine Aubry, yesterday presented the socialists' programme for the legislative elections. "The most enraging thing" about Mr Lionel Jospin's defeat "was that we understood what the French people wanted; we just didn't get the message across."

Although the programme resembles Mr Jospin's losing platform for the presidential election, Ms Aubry and her allies on the left of the party injected a strong dose of ideology, which led the centrist former finance minister Mr Dominique Strauss-Kahn to storm out of a meeting, saying it was "under the control of the extreme left".

Attempts to unite four left-wing parties before the National Assembly election are also fraught, with the communists accusing the socialists of "hegemonic practices".