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Last Updated: Thursday, 8 September 2005, 09:50 GMT 10:50 UK
French PM enjoys new prominence
By Hugh Schofield

Dominique de Villepin
Dominique de Villepin: Confounding critics with favourable ratings
French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin is marking the end of his first 100 days in office.

Mr de Villepin came to office in May, with the government languishing after voters had spurned the EU constitution.

Some said that as an unelected career civil servant he was not qualified for the job. But he has defied critics with a stronger-than-expected poll rating.

Mr de Villepin stood in for the ailing President Jacques Chirac on Wednesday by chairing a weekly cabinet meeting.

French economic growth remains stuck, but unemployment has started to fall, as Mr de Villepin promised.

He has introduced a series of moderately liberalising economic measures which have been broadly welcomed - if not by the unions - and his personal poll rating has moved steadily upwards.

In the limelight

Now, with his protector and closest ally, President Chirac, in hospital after what was described as a "vascular accident", Mr de Villepin finds himself propelled further upstage politically.

His cabinet meeting role on Wednesday was a first for President Chirac's 10 years in office.

The talk of Paris is that Mr de Villepin must be heading for a presidential bid of his own in 2007.

He is certainly President Chirac's preferred successor. But the problem is, there is another candidate in the running - the immensely ambitious interior minister and ruling UMP party chief, Nicolas Sarkozy.

The two men are said to loathe each other and have very different visions of how France should change.

For the time being, they are obliged to keep up the appearance of government unity, but the fašade cannot last for ever. A fascinating battle of wills lies ahead.

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