Nicolas Sarkozy, president of French President Jacques Chirac's right-wing ruling party Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) and seen as Chirac's arc-rival in the presidential elections in 2007, was asked Thursday to return to government as interior minister and minister of state.
Sarkozy, 50, leading notoriously bad personal relations with Villepin, aroused doubt among French politics. "This curious coupling stupefies the political class," Le Point magazine said Thursday.
Son of a Hungarian aristocrat and a Jewish mother, Sarkozy entered French politics in 1974 and supported Chirac's failed presidential campaigns in 1981 and 1988.
He served as finances minister for eight months till last November after being interior minister between 2002 and early 2004 in outgoing Premier Jean-Pierre Raffarin's government.
He quitted governmental post to take over the presidency of UMP at Chirac's request. Never hiding his ambition to run for the presidency in 2007, Sarkozy managed to use UMP for his presidential campaign, by absorbing thousands of new young advocators.
His return to government as at the same time president of UMP was seen as a climb-down of Chirac, analysts say, warning his known antipathy towards Villepin would make trouble in the following months.
Among his ideas are the liberalization of labour markets, sell- offs of state housing and private funding for universities and he has used every opportunity to show his difference from Chirac, by opposing Turkey's EU bid, recommending affirmative action to help France's Arab minority and attacking the French social model, favored by both Chirac and Villepin.
Shortly after the Sunday referendum, Sarkozy said he would try to get France out of impasse.
"I'll try to find a way to get France out of impasse where it is from now on,"
"By saying 'no', the French are calling on us to act quickly and vigorously to change the status quo. They are putting pressure on us to bring to an end the inertia and the nervousness ... to move the country forward as fast as possible," Sarkozy said.
"We need to decide on a program of action that is innovating, brave and ambitious. There has to be a major turnaround in our economic and social policy. There is no reason why this cannot happen," he added.