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Rivalry May Burst Out of the French Cabinet

Chirac's appointment of a prospective challenger as well as a protege could prove explosive.

June 14, 2005|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — In this French tale of political duels and palace intrigue, there are only two musketeers. And they are not inseparable companions.

In fact, word has it they despise each other. Although they claim to have formed a grudging alliance, France has braced for stealthy high-stakes combat likely to end, figuratively, with blood on the ground.

The swashbucklers in question are the dominant figures in France's new Cabinet: Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. Both were appointed after voters rejected the proposed European Union constitution last month in a national referendum, driving President Jacques Chirac's popularity to its lowest point of his ten years in office.

Chirac, a war horse toughened by four decades in the campaign trenches, responded by tapping De Villepin, his protege, to run a reshuffled government stocked mainly with loyalists. Their announced mission: fighting unemployment. The apparent unspoken mission: restoring Chirac's popularity and preserving his power until the 2007 presidential election.

If the 72-year-old Chirac does not run for a third term, he is expected to anoint a successor, probably De Villepin. But in an unusual move reflecting the gravity of the crisis and the calculus of power, the president handed the coveted Interior Ministry to his nemesis within the party: Sarkozy.

"As far as I know, it's the first time a president announces his interior minister at the same time as he announces his prime minister," said Sylvain Brouard, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Political Studies here. "A prime minister usually gets to name his own government. It's extraordinary in an institutional sense. It's like having two prime ministers. I think we are entering a period of instability, of incipient warfare."

The tensions grow out of Sarkozy's tormented history with Chirac, a onetime mentor. Chirac has never forgiven Sarkozy, 50, for supporting a rival for the presidency in 1995, by most accounts. But the president has ceded power to Sarkozy because of the younger man's talents and his strong support in their center-right party, the Union for a Popular Movement.

During the last three years, Sarkozy served a previous tenure as Chirac's interior minister and then economy minister. Last year, Sarkozy was elected president of the party, a post he retains. Despite general dislike for the Chirac administration, Sarkozy remains one of the most popular leaders in France. He is a top contender for the presidential election.

The son of a Hungarian immigrant, Sarkozy presents himself as a pragmatic maverick bucking an elite groomed in exclusive institutions such as the National School of Administration, which both Chirac and De Villepin attended.

Sarkozy blames the country's prolonged economic slump on the state-driven "French model" of governance. He has pushed impatiently for British- and U.S.-style free-market reform -- the "Anglo-Saxon liberalism" that the president and prime minister disdain. Sarkozy's economics and law-and-order image make him popular on the right. At the same time, he holds appeal that crosses party lines on the other side: He is a rare advocate of affirmative action.

Sarkozy is reminiscent of D'Artagnan, hero of "The Three Musketeers" by Alexandre Dumas: diminutive, bold, quick-witted, hot-tempered. Critics point out that he's no country boy recently arrived from the provinces, but a wealthy lawyer who got his start as mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine, an upscale suburb. Nonetheless, he still talks like an outsider intent on shaking up the system.

Sarkozy has a high-powered rival in De Villepin. In musketeer terms, the dashing prime minister resembles Aramis, the elegant poet-swordsman who had a way with words, women and the subtle art of court infighting.

De Villepin, 51, is the author of books on Napoleon, geopolitics and poetry. He seems better suited to making big-picture speeches, such as the impassioned U.N. address against the Iraq war that made him famous outside France in 2003, than wrestling with bread-and-butter domestic issues, political analysts say.

Although he has never run for office and has lower approval ratings than Sarkozy, De Villepin is widely believed to have presidential aspirations; his new post gives him a platform.

So it seems inevitable that the duo will cross swords. Some predict an eventual clash will cause Sarkozy to resign. That would further weaken a government facing threatened street protests by leftist parties, emboldened by the defeat of the EU referendum and suspicious of the government's plan to spur hiring by loosening labor regulations. Political crises in France have the potential to trigger early elections, which can be called by the president or forced by the legislature.

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