The choice of the former foreign minister reaffirms him as a potential presidential candidate in 2007. Although Chirac reportedly intends to seek a third term, his current difficulties make that less likely, Heisbourg said.
Sarkozy also is a probable contender. In contrast to Chirac and De Villepin, Sarkozy believes that France's state-driven economic model is outmoded.
He admires the policies of Prime Minister Tony Blair in Britain, which has one of Europe's lowest jobless rates, and is regarded as pro-American in comparison to many French politicians.
In a gesture to Sarkozy, Chirac announced Tuesday that the 50-year-old party leader would join De Villepin's Cabinet "in the spirit of unity." Sarkozy will serve as interior minister, a high-profile job he held from 2002 to 2004 that burnished his reputation as a crime fighter and troubleshooter.
Rotella reported from Brussels and Sicakyuz from Paris.
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At home in the halls of power
* Age: 51
* Childhood: Dominique de Villepin was born Nov. 14, 1953, in Morocco, the son of an expatriate executive. He learned fluent Spanish growing up in Venezuela.
* Education: De Villepin received degrees in arts and law from the Institut d'Etudes Politiques in Paris, and he graduated from the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, France's elite school for civil servants.
* Career: De Villepin spent 15 years in the foreign service, including a 1984-89 stint at the French Embassy in Washington. He was secretary-general of the presidency from 1995 to 2002, becoming one of President Jacques Chirac's closest advisors. De Villepin served as foreign minister from 2002 to 2004 before becoming interior minister in 2004.
* Writings: A poet as well as an author of political essays, De Villepin has published a book about Napoleon.
Sources: French government, Los Angeles Times
Los Angeles Times