Politics & Policy

The Villepin Effect

Sarkozy lives in fear of his French "allies". Welcome to the club, amigo.

I see from a report in the Independent that Castaways–the BBC’s variation on the Survivor theme–has lost its charm for British viewers. Once, the program, in which a pile of people are put through their paces to see who will back-stab the others and emerge victorious–really mattered. Now, the paper says, more people would rather watch Crufts, a show about a big pile of well-bred dogs. We want more bitches, less bitchiness, say the people, reflecting the global desire for an increase in public civility.

Pity the French. All they have is a presidential campaign, a sort of poll-driven version of Castaways, but perhaps somewhat more faithful to the title. Each week brings a new unexpected dose of drama, and this one was no different.

The two major events of the past week involve Nicholas Sarkozy’s own party, the UMP. You will recall from previous episodes that Sarkozy is a sort of vaguely pro-American semi-rightist contesting for the presidency against an array of other candidates, including François Bayrou, a “centrist” the way Joe Biden’s a centrist, and Ségolène Royal, the Socialist candidate.

When the show began, everyone, including me, assumed that Ségolène–less a visionary than a vision–would end up triumphant, throwing her hat in the air on the rue du Faubourg Saint Honoré, like Mary Tyler Moore in a more atmospheric Minneapolis. But no. She had to open her mouth, didn’t she, and what came out was the rhetorical equivalent of strained peas. This focused attention on her steak-and-’taters rival, Sarkozy. Meanwhile hiding in the pantry was Bayrou, a political hack suddenly made attractive by pointing out that politicians all lie. Except him. Overnight, practically, Bayrou was the farce to be reckoned with.

So this week, a couple of surprise developments. First, Jacques Chirac, the risible Elysée incumbent, announced he would not be a candidate for re-election! You can imagine the surprise. The historic moment had all the grandeur of a Disney parade and all the emotional honesty of an actor entering rehab. In the end, it’ll probably be more rehab than parade for Chirac, especially if Sarko loses and takes with him the cloak of invisibility he has promised to throw over Chirac’s fraud-infested career. French quibblers who think people who break laws should be punished are already on the trail of Chirac, rattling chains and making the old man nervous at the prospect of doing hard labor without benefit of a 35-hour week. No wonder M. le Président’s announcement was a tearful one. Its effect on French citizens, however, was not apparent, but Simon Heffer ably documents his own emotional roller coaster in the Daily Telegraph.

The other tearful political moment of the week was Dominique de Villepin’s confession on national radio–captured here by Libération–that he was endorsing Sarkozy. The tears were Sarko’s because the impact was immediate:  Less than 24 hours after getting Villepin’s endorsement, Sarkozy had dropped a point-and-a-half in the polls. It’s taken him all week just to stop the slide.

They’re brothers-in-arms, but like a couple of Venus de Milos: They serve together in the present government–Sarkozy at Interior, Villepin as prime minister–and they both have wavy hair, but the similarities stop there: Sarkozy has actually won an election or two in his career, and while he has no great affection for the war in Iraq, he’s been openly critical of the diplomatic deceit conducted by Chirac and Villepin at the U.N. before the conflict started. But if Villepin’s endorsement was bad, it could always get worse: There must be great terror among Sarkophiles that just as the race is narrowing dramatically–this week, according to Ipsos, also saw Bayrou finally catching Ségolène Royal in the polls–Chirac might endorse his own Interior minister and thus sink Sarko forever.

In fact, even though both Bayrou and Sarkozy agreed Chirac’s departure had been a good thing for the campaign–not to mention France–Bayrou, as Le Monde reports,  used the occasion to attach Chirac’s support to Sarkozy, one way or another. Throwing Chirac at Sarkozy makes sense for Bayrou for reasons that extend beyond the revulsion the French feel for the president of their republic. It also gives him a little upholstery to use against the desperate attacks on him now being mounted by the Socialists, summarized here by Eursoc. Their fear? That Royal’s declining fortunes will leave them once again on the sidelines if they are relegated to third place in the first round of elections next month. This result wouldn’t disappoint all Socialists, even. In today’s Le Figaro, the party’s much-respected economics expert, Eric Besson, who resigned accusing Royal of duplicity, goes further, calling her a fraudulent populist and declaring he won’t vote for her no matter what. Besson’s defection has been a signal event in Socialist party politics, since it’s widely seen as an act of principle.

And the race is further complicated by the announcement that Jean-Marie LePen, the George Wallace of French politics–has received enough signatures to qualify for the ballot. He will poll at 12-14 percent for the duration, but his actual numbers will trend slightly higher, since admitting you’re supporting an anti-immigrant, anti-American, anti-Semitic blowhard is a hard thing to do, even if you’re an anti-American French anti-Semite. If LePen could capture all the disaffected voters in France, he’d be a boot-in, of course, but that won’t happen.

Instead, the French will continue to make Sarkozy earn his spot at the top. The most likely outcome, at least at the end of this week, appears to be a Sarkozy-Bayrou match-up in the final round of voting in May. That’s an interesting prospect for two reasons:  First, it will demonstrate yet again the irrelevance of any modern political party with pretensions to “socialism” as a guiding economic and political theory. But more important for France, it will be a contest between two candidates who are not énarques–members of the odious, self-serving, pure-bred political élite who have dominated French politics since World War II. Royal is an énarque, as is her “partner,” François Hollande, the leader of the French Socialist party. A defeat of the candidate representing the two most destructive forces in modern French politics will be a victory for the French, no matter who wins. Mutts rule!


Denis BoylesDennis Boyles is a writer, editor, former university lecturer, and the author/editor of several books of poetry, travel, history, criticism, and practical advice, including Superior, Nebraska (2008), Design Poetics (1975), ...


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