May 31, 2005
VILLEPIN THE WIRETAPPER, FRANCE'S NEW PRIME MINISTER
Dominique Marie François René Galouzeau de Villepin -- that's the name of France's new prime minister. An aristocrat who spent most of his life in the diplomatic service (specialties: former head of the Quai d'Orsay's Africa bureau, three years in the French embassy in India, five years as first secretary and then press spokesman for France's embassy in Washington), de Villepin is a protege of disgraced former p.m. Alain Juppe when Juppe was foreign minister. (Juppe, Chirac's closest political collaborator and the former head of his party, earlier this year lost his seat in parliament and his mayoralty in Bordeaux when a court removed his right to hold public office for his involvement in campaign finance scandals). Villepin was secretary-general of the Elysee under Chirac -- meaning he was Chirac's chief of staff. He's best known on this side of the Atlantic as France's foreign minister during the Iraq war, and as the public voice of his country against that war in the U.N. But that doesn't mean Villepin is an anti-imperialist. The Iraq invasion was highly unpopular in France among both left and right political classes and electorates -- some 80% in opinion polls opposed it -- and Chirac, ever the opportunist, knew that taking a strong position against Bush's war would be highly popular in France. But under governments of both left and right, France has always exercised its influence and prerogatives in a muscular way in its former African colonies -- and Villepin helped do that when he was Mr. Africa at the Quai d'Orsay. As Foreign Minister he was a very traditional defender of France's interests and aggressive role in Africa, where it has frequently deployed military forces in its ex-colonies. No anti-imperialist he.
I'd say that Chirac's choice of Villepin means the 70-year-old, conservative French president learned nothing from Sunday's referendum rejecting the European Constitution. That rejection was not a nationalist one, but an economic one -- a rejection of the Europe being constructed as the playground of the multinational corporations, and a reflection of the profound French economic crisis that has unemployment there at 10%. Not only does Villepin have little background in domestic policy, he's never been elected to anything and has little sense of the problems that preoccupy the French in their daily life. He is, therefore, hardly the man one would have imagined as the right response to the socio-economic cry of distress of last Sunday's political revolt against the Euro Constitution.
Moreover, he has a tin ear for electoral politics. It is Villepin who was the architect of Chirac's decision in 1997 to dissolve parliament and call early parliamentary elections -- which the right disastrously lost, and which led to the replacement of the conservative government by Socialist p.m. Lionel Jospin for the next five years. As the "father" of the disastrous dissolution, Villepin is detested by the overwhelming majority of Chirac's UMP party in parliament (yesterday, before Chirac named Villepin as p.m. this morning, Le Figaro quoted a UMP parliamentary leader as saying "there's not a single deputy in the majority who supports the choice of Villepin.")
One of the most interesting facts about Villepin -- revealed by the newsweekly L'Express in April -- is that the new p.m. loves wiretaps and secret police files on everyone, from journalists to politicians, a taste he refined in Chirac's service as secretary-general of the Elysee. The magazine reported that staff at the Quai d'Orsay when Villepin was foreign minister believed their phones were tapped on his orders. And, when he took up his current job as Minister of the Interior and France's "First Cop" (a job Chirac put him in to give him a little domestic experience before he made him p.m., as he'd long planned to do), Villepin told the staff, "I want to know everything the journalists are saying." L'Express described him as spending hours pouring over the daily confidential reports from the Renseignements Generaux, the RG -- France's political police, who have under surveillance and frequently wiretap all sorts of political, journalistic, and well-known personalities, keeping tabs on their targets' private lives as well as the political life of the country. This J. Edgar Hoover-ish tendency to want to know everyone's secrets (and use them politically) is another reason Villepin is detested by the politicians of his own party.
Both on the right and on the left, in the wake of Sunday's vote there have been calls from French political leaders for a complete change in government economic and social policy: even the presidentially hyper-ambitious Nicolas Sarkozy, the chairman of Chirac's party, called for a "rupture" with those Chirac policies within an hour after the No victory became known. But Villepin has no innovative policy change to offer, he's a loyal Chirac lieutenant. The French right no longer has much legitimacy with the electorate on economic issues, and Villepin is not the man to provide it.
Yes, Villepin's a strange choice indeed as Chirac's response to Sunday's political revolt in France.
P.S. Nicolas Sarkozy (see photo below) is to be named Number Two in the Villepin government, where he will replace Villepin as Interior Minister, France Info radio reported this morning -- that's the job that Sarkozy (now the elected chairman of Chirac's UMP party, in which he is wildly popular) held previously, and where he cemented his reputation, and popularity, as a hard-line law-and-order crackdown artist. Villepin and Sarkozy detest each other, and have been at daggers drawn behind the scenes as both men vied to become the next p.m. in preparation for the 2007 presidential elections, in which each would like to be the candidate of the right. For example, Sarkozy blamed Villepin for leaking wiretaps and confidential information in a political scandal earlier this year in attempt, Sarkozy felt, to blacken his name. Villepin denied it, of course, but political insiders in Paris believe that's exactly what Villepin -- who has a reputation for brutality with subordinates and merciless vengefulness against his enemies -- did. Sarkozy, a masterful and media savvy politician, will try to outshine Villepin at every turn. Thus Sarkozy and Villepin will make a strange governmental team indeed.
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