Europe

Profile: Dominique de Villepin

  • 11 December 2011
  • From the section Europe
Former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin poses prior to the start of his interview with TV channel TF1 on 11 December.
Image caption Mr De Villepin has been a long-time rival of the incumbent, Nicolas Sarkozy

Dominique Marie Francois Rene Galouzeau de Villepin, who has declared his candidacy for the 2012 French presidential elections, could hardly be accused of being a man of the people.

His sharp intellect has proved both a curse and a blessing - along with a manner some perceive as arrogant, but which others say is part of his urbane charm and wit.

France's former poet prime minister - a personal protege of former President Jacques Chirac - was cleared of all charges centring on his alleged role in the so-called Clearstream affair.

The move was linked to a smear campaign waged against his political arch-rival, President Nicolas Sarkozy.

Mr de Villepin was accused of "complicity in slanderous denunciations".

The charge was that he encouraged the leaking of Mr Sarkozy's name after it was included in 2004 on a list of people who took bribes for arms sales - a document later found to have been falsified.

The intense rivalry between the two men dates back to their cabinet rivalry and ambitions to succeed Mr Chirac as president.

The turning point for Mr de Villepin, prime minister between May 2005 and May 2007, came when public protests and strikes over his planned labour reforms led to the changes being scrapped in April 2006.

He had badly misread the public mood and isolated himself politically as he tried to justify the reforms.

The protests came on top of a wave of riots by youths in deprived suburbs across France in the autumn of 2005.

The U-turn over labour reforms was a humiliating political and personal defeat, which went some way to disqualifying Mr de Villepin from running for president.

Poetry and politics

At the height of the crisis, while in public Mr de Villepin remained unruffled, what were his private thoughts?

His biographer, Serge Raffi, visited him at the Matignon, the prime minister's office, one Thursday in the middle of the discontent and discovered that his subject had been busy turning his mind to poetry.

"He was receiving a poet from Chile," reveals Mr Raffi.

"At the same time, the French prime minister was negotiating with the unions to find an exit to the crisis.

"Dominique de Villepin is not able to live only the reality. He needs more."

Poetry has always mixed with politics in this unusual life.

His political writings are peppered with poetic references and, while a cabinet minister, he published a dense volume of verse, The Shark and the Seagull.

It was taken as a hymn of praise to the French social model. The seagull symbolises the subtle, praiseworthy values of France. And the shark stands for - what else? - the hungry, ruthless United States.

"The seagull is intoxicated by the sky. She turns, carried by the winds, with undulating wing, uttering from time to time her agonising peal of laughter... The straight line is rarely her course. She listens to the world."

Unelected ascent

Mr de Villepin's own vertiginous political ascent was just as heady. The French system allowed him to rise to become the second-highest politician in the land without the tiresome business of becoming an MP, or even a local councillor.

He was a career diplomat before being chosen as Mr Chirac's chief of staff.

His rapid rise came thanks to the president's patronage - and his photogenic looks seemed perfect for a prime minister in this visual age.

The mere sight of his athletic, tanned body emerging from the waves on the beach after one party conference had the women of France in a collective swoon.

He is fascinated with the figure of Napoleon. Just as he was appointed prime minister, Mr de Villepin published a book about Napoleon's first 100 days, tempting fate by giving himself that same deadline to reform France.

He certainly identified with his hero - Napoleon, too, was born outside mainland France, and saw its interests as his own.

Mr de Villepin was born the son of a French diplomat in Morocco, and only later moved to France.

Yet he was never an outsider. He attended the ultimate insiders' school, Ena, becoming, like his mentor Mr Chirac, what is known as an enarque - the political caste which has held sway over modern France.

Chirac's Svengali

But what was it about Dominique de Villepin that made Mr Chirac appoint him first as chief of staff, then foreign minister, interior minister and finally his prime minister?

It was the poetry and the intellect, as French journalist and commentator Anne-Elisabeth Moutet explains.

"Chirac has always needed to admire someone who's got intellectual ascendancy over him," she believes.

"Villepin is the last Svengali to shape Chirac's brain."

Mr de Villepin knows well from his study of French history that forelock-tuggers can quickly turn nasty in a crowd.

But perhaps his long years outside France gave Mr de Villepin a rather too rosy view of his compatriots?

Fittingly, it was on the world stage that Mr de Villepin first truly seduced his compatriots.

As French foreign minister, he led the opposition to the war on Iraq, making the most stirring speech of his life at the UN in February 2003.

He eloquently stood up for France against the might of the US superpower and its Anglo-Saxon ally Britain. It not only won him the rare distinction of applause at the UN but widespread admiration, even adoration, back at home.

His speech to the UN became such a symbol that it was set to music in his honour.

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