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Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 May, 2005, 09:42 GMT 10:42 UK
Profile: Jean-Pierre Raffarin
Jean-Pierre Raffarin
Jean-Pierre Raffarin: Grassroots credentials but popularity plunged

Jean-Pierre Raffarin was seen as a plain-speaking grassroots politician when he emerged from relative obscurity to become prime minister in May 2002.

But he fell victim to a grassroots reaction against economic liberalisation, which provided much of the impetus for the clear French "No" to the EU constitution.

Many French voters - angered by stubbornly high unemployment and other economic woes - appear to have used the referendum to punish Mr Raffarin and his centre-right government.

The writing was on the wall for Mr Raffarin well before the referendum, as his disapproval rating hit 76% - a record in the Fifth Republic, which is nearly 50 years old.

Even a well-intentioned plan to raise extra revenue for the elderly came unstuck as millions of French workers stayed at home on 16 May for the traditional Pentecost holiday, ignoring the government's decision to scrap it.

Political outsider

It was Mr Raffarin, 56, who had coined the phrase "la France d'en bas" - meaning the ordinary folk with whom he identified, and whom he had hoped to reconnect with the politicians in Paris.

Nicolas Sarkozy
French politics' rising star Nicolas Sarkozy soon eclipsed Mr Raffarin
Unlike many other members of France's political elite, he had first pursued a business career, marketing coffee in the 1970s and then holding senior posts in public relations.

His appointment as prime minister after the 2002 presidential election was a gesture from President Jacques Chirac to the centre-right coalition which had just helped him win re-election.

Mr Raffarin was not from Mr Chirac's own party, but from its more free-market rival, the Liberal Democrats.

Mr Raffarin stressed the need for French politicians to deliver, following the shock emergence of far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen as a serious contender for the presidency.

The centre-right UMP coalition went on to win a landslide victory in parliamentary elections the following month, promising tough action on crime and insecurity.

Mounting opposition

But things began to go sour when Mr Raffarin turned his attention towards liberalising the French economy.

In 2003, his restructuring of the pension system provoked widespread strikes and then his government was blamed for inaction during that summer's heat wave in which thousands of elderly people died.

Mr Raffarin was also bedevilled by a widening budget deficit that exceeded the EU's 3% limit.

Critics said he was no longer listening to the people and in March last year his government was heavily defeated in regional elections.

Mr Raffarin was born in 1948 into a prosperous family in Poitiers, central France.

In the 1970s, he supported former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing - who later became the architect of the EU constitution the French voted to reject in Sunday's referendum.

Mr Raffarin was minister for small businesses in the 1995-1997 government of Alain Juppe.

He became deputy leader of the Liberal Democrats before rising to the post of prime minister.

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