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Last Updated: Tuesday, 31 May, 2005, 23:22 GMT 00:22 UK
Chirac seeks to heal divided nation
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, Paris

President Jacques Chirac has had two days to reflect on his response to the anger expressed by the French people in Sunday's referendum.

French President Jacques Chirac (l) bids farewell to former Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin
The prime minister's resignation was the first change

On Tuesday night he addressed the nation to make clear he had heard the people's message.

Mr Chirac promised a new government of national unity, which would work to heal the divides so starkly revealed in the French rejection of the European constitution.

"This vote does not mark the rejection of the European ideal," he said.

"It is a plea to be heard, a plea for action, a plea for results. Strong, diverse and sometimes contradictory expectations were expressed and came together in a feeling of dissatisfaction and insecurity in the face of today's world."

A disenchanted people

With that, he gave a promise to back away from the reform agenda many in France feared was based on a harsh British and US model of fierce free market competition.

But there was no mention of the future of the European constitution as President Chirac vowed to seek consensus for any move his new government made, with fighting 10% unemployment the top priority.

Jacques Chirac
You have in the course of these debates expressed your worries
Jacques Chirac

"This demands a national effort," Mr Chirac said, speaking from the Elysee Palace as he had in the immediate aftermath of Sunday's humiliating rejection of the treaty by his disenchanted people.

And he was quick to reassure the French that the social model they feared could be taken away would be safe in the hands of his new government.

"I want this effort to happen within the framework of the French social model," the French leader promised.

"This is not an Anglo-Saxon model but neither is it a model that is a synonym for inaction. It's a model founded on the initiative and dynamism of individuals, on community spirit and on social dialogue."

Conflicting demands

The man entrusted with leading that dialogue is President Chirac's loyal protege, Dominique de Villepin.

French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin
French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin faces a difficult task

The patrician poet and now prime minister has never been elected to public office, though he has had experience as both foreign and interior minister.

He now faces a challenge that defeated most of his predecessors: how to reform a nation whose people stubbornly reject change.

This is a pivotal moment for France.

Having knocked the entire European project off course, the coming months will show whether the new government under Dominique de Villepin - working in the new cabinet with his arch-rival Nicolas Sarkozy - can steer France itself back into calmer waters, or whether this government, too, will flounder on the French people's conflicting demands.

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