In early March, while meeting with French officials in Libya, I suggested that if President Chirac wanted to repair the damage done to U.S.-French relations by French behavior last year, he might start by “putting a new face on French diplomacy.”
Just three weeks later, Chirac announced that he was replacing foreign minister Dominique de Villepin with the relatively unknown, but pro-American, Michel Barnier.
Known for his arrogance and love for grandstanding, Villepin was reviled in America for having sandbagged U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell at the United Nations last year, a disgraceful episode I have detailed in my new book, The French Betrayal of America.
Prancing around the world like an over-wound ballet dancer to line up votes against America at the United Nations, Villepin never lost an opportunity to blast America’s “hegemony” in world affairs.
His replacement at the Quai d’Orsay, Michel Barnier, hosted a nongovernmental conference on transatlantic relations last November in Paris that was attended by U.S. Ambassador Dan Freed, the National Security Council director for European affairs.
Two participants at that conference–one French, one American–tell me that Barnier displayed a “pragmatic approach” toward U.S.-French relations in marked contrast to his predecessor.
“Michel Barnier is much less arrogant than Villepin, and will have a very different approach” when differences between the United States and France come up, a French participant said.
“We’re ready to work with the French and their new team, and have lots on the joint agenda,” a U.S. official said. Uppermost on that agenda are preparations for the 60th anniversary of the D-Day landings in Normandy on June 6.
Barnier resigned his position as a member of the French senate in 1999 to become a European commissioner in Brussels. He spearheaded the effort to renew a transatlantic dialogue last fall, when U.S.-French relations were at their lowest ebb, under the banner of a nonprofit political group known as the “New Republic.”
U.S.-French relations broke down on January 20, 2003, when Villepin “ambushed” Secretary of State Colin Powell at the United Nations in New York. The two men had dined privately just the night before to work out the wording of a new United Nations Security council resolution on Iraq–the 18th–that explicitly authorized the use of force if Saddam Hussein refused to disarm. While Powell thought they had reached an agreement, Villepin announced to his surprise that France would veto the resolution and “never support” the use of force in Iraq.
Villepin continued to tweak Powell’s nose at every occasion after that public clash. At a meeting in Paris last May, Powell explicitly asked Villepin not to undermine the joint U.S. and European “roadmap” for Middle East peace negotiations by meeting with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat, accused by the United States and Israel of supporting homicide bombers. Just one week later, Villepin made a very public pilgrimage to Arafat’s headquarters in Ramallah, calling him the “legitimate elected president” of the Palestinian Authority.
French observers expect the new foreign minister will avoid such anti-American theatrics, and will work to put transatlantic relations back on a more even keel.
But watch out: Persistent rumors that Chirac had removed Villepin “as a sign” toward Washington prompted the French president to issue an unusual public denial. “French foreign policy is not changing,” he told the pro-government daily, Le Figaro. “It is decided by the president, and as long as I am there, that policy will not change.”
The departure of Villepin will mean a change of style more than one of substance. While Chirac has made great hay of the latest White House announcement that President Bush will dine with him in Paris on June 5 before heading to the Normandy beach commemoration, he continues to oppose U.S. efforts to stabilize Iraq and has refused to order the BNP Paribas to turn over key documents on the U.N.’s corrupt oil-for-cash program in Iraq.
Despite Villepin’s very public clash with the United States, his star continues to rise. As interior minister in the new government, he now controls the French police and counterespionage service, and could order them to scale back cooperation with the United States in the war on terror.
And it could get worse. Observers in Paris say that Chirac moved Villepin to the interior ministry as part of a “domestic political strategy,” aimed at positioning the 50-year-old technocrat as Chirac’s political heir. He replaces the wildly popular Nicolas Sarkozy, a potential rival to Chirac in the 2007 presidential elections, who takes on the Sisyphean task of revamping the French welfare state as minister of economy and finance.
Former Prime Minister Alain Juppé, a key Villepin ally recently convicted on corruption charges, agrees that Villepin’s new job is not a demotion but a career-enhancing move. “Having shown his stuff at the foreign ministry, now he makes his entrée into domestic politics,” Juppe said.
Although he had never been elected to public office, Villepin has written a political manifesto. It bears the improbable title, “The Gargoyle’s Scream,” and an even more improbable message. “[H]ow could some of us not feel tempted by nostalgia for a time when France was ruled by an all-powerful state, that had only to appear to be obeyed,” he writes.
His solution for France’s agony of powerlessness and self-doubt is not more freedom, but more government–and authoritarian government, at that. Villepin believes that today’s Frenchmen and women are yearning for a charismatic leader who, like Napoleon, will “vanquish or die” in pursuit of glory.
The last time that happened, 400,000 young Frenchmen perished on the plains before Moscow. For the sake of the young Frenchmen and women of today–and for the young Americans who will invariably be called on to bail them out–let’s hope Villepin is only joking; or, pray that he’s closer to retirement than being seated as head of state.
–Kenneth R. Timmerman is author of The French Betrayal of America and a senior writer for Insight magazine.