Chirac, Villepin and Sarkozy: friends or foes?

On the Machiavellian intrigues gripping the leaders of the French political class.

Jonny Thakkar

Topics Politics

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President Chirac responded to the French electorate’s rejection of the European Constitution by casting his scapegoat into the wilderness: Jean-Pierre Raffarin was forced to resign as prime minister and swiftly replaced by the interior minister, Dominic de Villepin. But Villepin looks unlikely to be able to save Chirac from his old enemy Nicolas Sarkozy.

Villepin is exactly the kind of politician that the French electorate emphatically rejected when they refused to back the Constitution despite the best efforts of almost the entire political class (no major news organ supported the ‘no’ campaign), as well as back in 2002 when they allowed Jean-Marie Le Pen, the National Front leader, to get through to the final round of the presidential election at the expense of the Socialist Lionel Jospin. To start with, Villepin has never been elected at any level. This is fairly normal in French politics: Pompidou was unelected for the first five years of his premiership; and the current finance minister, Thierry Breton, is a businessman by profession. Villepin is a graduate of the famous Ecole Nationale d’Administration, midwife to the elite since de Gaulle founded it in 1945 to produce a ruling caste of about 100 technocrats per year.

Seven of the past 10 prime ministers have been énarques, as they are known. But even for an énarque, Villepin is about as elite as you could get: a good-looking, intelligent aristocrat of whom Chirac said in 2000 that ‘it is very rare to meet a man who is a poet at the same time as a very good commando leader’ (1). In the blurb to one of his recent books, The Shark and the Seagull, Villepin writes ‘We are now at a crucial moment where we can glimpse the possibility of a reconciliation between power and grace, between the sea and the sky, between the shark and the gull, a perfect fusion of opposites as celebrated by the great philosophers and poets. Yes, a new kind of brotherhood is possible. A sense of purpose is possible. Values exist which deserve to be defended. The aim of this book is none other than to call to mind our common journey so that we can go forward with a surer step on the road of tomorrow.’ (2).

The distance between Villepin and the ordinary Frenchman is exemplified by an incident that occurred in summer 2004. A young woman claimed to have suffered an anti-Semitic attack on a train near Paris, just a day after Chirac had made a speech about the dangers of racism (3). Villepin immediately condemned the attack as ‘ignoble, made worse by the racist and anti-Semitic gestures’ that accompanied it, and Chirac swiftly added his voice to the clamour. Unfortunately for both, a brief investigation showed that the woman in question suffered mental health problems and had made the whole incident up. What’s more, policemen on the ground had expressed their own doubts from the very start. Villepin and Chirac were caught in the act, the emptiness of the empathetic morality they so proudly flaunted was laid bare.

Chirac’s choice of Villepin seems above all to be a final, desperate attempt to thwart his rival Nicolas Sarkozy. The battle between Chirac and Sarkozy has been raging ever since the latter supported Edouard Balladur in the 1995 presidential election (see Chirac v Sarkozy). In September 2004, Sarkozy, then finance minister, was elected as head of the Union for the Presidential Majority (UMP), the party formed in 2002 for the sole purpose of supporting Chirac. Chirac had anticipated this development, and had used his Bastille Day address to forbid members of the government from holding more than one important office (cumul des mandates) at any one time.

This was naked hypocrisy, since Chirac himself had been Mayor of Paris at the same time as prime minister during the 1980s, but nonetheless it worked: Sarkozy was forced to resign as finance minister in order to take up the leadership of the UMP. After the fall of Raffarin, it seemed that Chirac would be forced to yield to the opinion polls by appointing Sarkozy in his place. Unless, that is, a more suitable candidate could be found. Villepin can claim a certain amount of popularity based on his barnstorming performances as foreign minister during the build up to the Iraq war, where he revived the Gaullist fantasy of a French pole in international affairs. But his main selling point in Chirac’s eyes is his loyalty. Chirac has only ever made one public comment about Villepin, and that was to say (in an interview with Le Monde in 2000) that ‘He has demonstrated an iron loyalty to me down the years. For me, loyalty is a fundamental quality which weighs more than many other traits’ (3).

That statement makes clear that Chirac’s first priority is number one. Villepin will have succeeded if Chirac is able to win the next presidential election; failing that, the next best solution for Chirac would be for Villepin to win the presidential election. This is not unconnected with the threat of corruption charges relating to his time as Mayor of Paris; as president, Chirac enjoys immunity from prosecution. But there is no getting around the fact that in the war of personalities, Sarkozy has the edge over both of them. Villepin, the aloof aristocratic poetic commando leader, has little of Sarkozy’s popular touch. Perhaps mindful of this, Chirac has appointed the latter to the offices of interior minister and deputy prime minister, thereby undermining his earlier pronouncements about the cumul des mandates and making himself a laughing stock.

As for Sarkozy, while he may gain in the short term, the long-term future of the elite whose leadership he may inherit looks dim. As if to underline this, it has emerged that part of the reason why he has agreed to take the post of interior minister is in order to settle his accounts with those he suspects have been conducting a ‘dirty tricks’ campaign against him in the security services. During his period away from government, an anonymous letter to a judge accused him of shady financial dealings involving a Luxembourgian company called ‘Clearstream’. Later, faked nude pictures of his wife, Cecilia, were circulated on the internet. Apparently he also claims that his phones have been bugged and that his family background has been raked over by investigators (5). Whether or not Sarkozy really is being plotted against, it is clear from the fact that he is willing to use his office in his personal service that the stench of corruption is beginning to surround him just as it does Chirac and the rest of the French political elite.

What seems certain is that the next two years will be filled with more Machiavellian intrigues between Chirac, Villepin and Sarkozy. What seems probable is that this will only turn the French electorate even further away from the entire political class. With unemployment at 10 per cent, many people have more important things on their minds.

Read on:

For Europe, but not the EU, by Mick Hume

No means no, by Bruno Waterfield

(1) ‘Villepin est-il prêt?’, L’Express, 18 October 2004

(2) ‘Le Requin et la mouette’, Plon 2004

(3)‘Swastika attack on French mother’, BBC News Online, 11 July 2004

(4) ‘Villepin est-il prêt?’, L’Express, 18 October 2004

(5) ‘La guerre des trois’, L’Express, 06 June 2005

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Topics Politics


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