Chirac and De Villepin have a lot in common. Both are tall, perpetually tanned charmers with famous tempers. They both profess admiration for the United States. Chirac's enthusiasm for U.S. culture dates to his youthful travels in 1950s America, when he had a romance with a Southern belle and worked behind a counter at a Howard Johnson's restaurant.
And Chirac has reportedly described De Villepin, who became one of his top advisors during seven years as presidential chief of staff, as the son he never had.
Chirac won reelection last year after being startled by the unexpected strength of extremist candidates. He saw himself at the peak of his career and was determined to break with the political stagnation that had disillusioned voters. De Villepin, meanwhile, had his eye on the Interior Ministry, a high-profile post overseeing law enforcement that would enhance his political future, according to analysts and diplomats.
But Chirac, who immerses himself in the details of foreign policy, wanted his trusted aide in the diplomatic post. Regardless, De Villepin has catapulted into the ranks of potential presidential candidates, according to Guillaume Parmentier, an expert at the French Institute for International Relations.
"The French tend to see a foreign minister as something between a politician and a technocrat," Parmentier said. "But Iraq has made him into a personality. He is now mentioned in the opinion polls."
De Villepin is a telegenic version of the high-powered intellectuals who populate French government. He was born in Morocco, the son of an expatriate executive, and he learned fluent Spanish growing up in Venezuela. Like Chirac, he graduated from the National School of Administration here, a breeding ground for the French elite.
An amateur poet as well as an author, he published a book about Napoleon before writing "The Cry of the Gargoyle," which analyzes France's historic existential struggle between conservatism and revolution, "ideal and violence, Republic and Terror." In it, he paints a portrait of the "smoking ruins" of an international landscape smoldering with fear and uncertainty after the Sept. 11 attacks.
The book is a call to arms exhorting France to renew its glory in times that demand it. De Villepin extols Joan of Arc, Charles de Gaulle and other heroes of a history "punctuated with dramatic moments in which we have known how to rise above ourselves." He wants France to achieve its potential as the leader of an assertive Europe that counterbalances the poles of American and Asian power.
"De Villepin's approach to foreign policy is impulsive rather than cold and calculating," said Andrew Knapp, a professor of French politics at Reading University in Britain.
This hands-on approach brings risks. In January, De Villepin traveled to the Ivory Coast to broker a truce between the government and rebels in the former French colony. When disgruntled pro-government forces vented their anger in anti-French riots, he took heat.
"His physical involvement was risky, but it sends a message to Africans that he cares about them," said Roland Marchal of the Center for Studies of International Relations here. "In six months, it may turn out that he created a mess or that it was a turning point in the crisis. That's his style -- to be personally involved, emotionally involved."
With close supervision from Chirac, De Villepin played a lead role last fall in drafting the U.N. resolution mandating that Iraq disarm. Subsequently, however, analysts and diplomats say his high-voltage style angered Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, whom Europeans saw as the U.S. leader most sympathetic to their antiwar views.
De Villepin and Powell got along well and spoke frequently throughout the fall. But Powell, according to numerous accounts, felt ambushed by his French counterpart at a Jan. 20 meeting of the Security Council. The meeting, nominally about terrorism, took place on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Powell was in great demand at events around the U.S. and attended the U.N. session reluctantly at De Villepin's urging, according to Parmentier and others.
Powell grew tense as France and Germany turned the forum into a discussion of Iraq. He was furious when De Villepin used a news conference afterward to declare France's determination to oppose war plans, according to sources.
The French view disputes the idea that De Villepin somehow "lost" Powell at a vital moment. Parmentier said Powell had already indicated at a meeting with the French foreign minister that he had converted to the camp of the hawks.
Despite the gulf of misunderstanding and resentment that now separates Paris and Washington, Chirac and De Villepin's goal has been to reassert France's influence and strengthen its bonds to such countries as Russia and such regions as the Middle East. In the long run, they think the Bush administration is an unusually radical government that may be weakened by war in Iraq, especially if the aftermath is messy, according to Marchal.
"It may be a wrong assessment, but Chirac and Villepin are looking beyond this group of neoconservatives," Marchal said. "They think that the Americans, at the end of the day, will need France for anti-terrorism cooperation, trade and so on. To what extent could the U.S. government really carry off an economic boycott of France?
"They think maybe Bush will not do so well in terms of economic policy and a new administration could come in with more traditional thinking."