De Villepin: dashing diplomat becomes top cop

31st March 2004, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, March 31 (AFP) - For most of the world, Dominique de Villepin was the loquacious point man for international opposition to the US war on Iraq - and, as French foreign minister, one of the most dashing politicians to strut the global stage.

PARIS, March 31 (AFP) - For most of the world, Dominique de Villepin was the loquacious point man for international opposition to the US war on Iraq - and, as French foreign minister, one of the most dashing politicians to strut the global stage.

Now, as France's new interior minister, his role is likely to be much more domestic, but given his propensity for attracting the limelight, no less high-profile.

De Villepin, a tall, tanned 50-year-old scion of an aristocratic family who is given to linguistic flourishes, won the respect of supporters and critics everywhere for his nuanced offensive against the Iraq war.

The high point was probably a speech he gave on January 20 last year at the United Nations, in which he elicited a very rare round of applause for proclaiming that "nothing justifies the prospect of military action."

In comments two months before US bombs started falling on Baghdad, he said:
"If at a given moment the US decides to embark on a military action, the first question we will ask is its legitimacy. The second will be the effectiveness of this action."

His advocacy of France's anti-war position proved a major thorn in Washington's side, which had been counting on allies rallying around its warnings of Iraq supposedly having weapons of mass destruction that posed an imminent threat.

Many observers saw the speech, with its implied menace of a UN veto, as the turning point against US President George W. Bush's plans for Iraq - and the return of France to the centre of international politics.

De Villepin, born to French parents in the Moroccan capital Rabat on November 14, 1953, is widely seen as the intellectual force behind President Jacques Chirac's rise and reign.

An avowed internationalist who speaks French, English, Spanish and Italian fluently, and who gets by on minimum sleep to also run marathons during the day and write poetry and books at night, he is both a poster boy for the quintessential overachieving politician and a throwback to the days in France when the nobles running the country had to be equally eminent in promoting its culture.

His elevation to foreign minister was a logical choice given his long career as a diplomat.

An unelected politician - he sees himself more of an "eminence grise" than a scrappy vote-chaser - he has pursued a path that has kept him close to Chirac without ever seeking to usurp him, despite a superior popularity rating.

He started out, as do many of France's ruling elite, in the National Administration School (ENA) and joined the foreign ministry to work in the Africa department.

He was subsequently sent to Washington, where he was press director for two years from 1987, and then to New Delhi. From 1993 to 1995 he was cabinet director to then-foreign minister Alain Juppe, Chirac's closest aide who served a brief term as prime minister and who this year was disgraced in a corruption trial.

When Chirac became head of state in 1995, he came to rely increasingly on de Villepin. Insiders said the president even took his advice to call misguided general elections in 1997 that resulted in a complete rout for Chirac's party.

"Light kills," de Villepin once said of his behind-the-scenes role in which he pulled strings to keep his boss safe from graft allegations that have dogged Chirac since his time as Paris mayor.

As foreign minister, he travelled constantly and lorded over a diplomatic network of embassies and missions second only to that of the United States - even though unprecedented strikes by his staff highlighted budget constraints.

His tireless work greatly raised France's profile and he didn't hesitate to help old friends, such as Ingrid Betancourt, a Colombian presidential candidate kidnapped two years ago by Colombian rebels who was in de Villepin's class at a renowned Paris political science institute.

De Villepin has repeatedly denied allegations that he masterminded a failed bid to send French military commandos through Brazil last July to rescue Betancourt, who holds dual French citizenship from an earlier marriage to a French diplomat.

During his time as foreign minister, de Villepin also oversaw other crises involving French influence, notably cooperating with the United States to ease former Haitian president Jean-Bertrand Aristide from power, acting as peace-broker in an Ivory Coast insurgency and playing a key role in convincing Iran to accept UN inspections of its nuclear facilities.

Now, as incoming interior minister, he will be forced to focus more on domestic law-and-order than diplomatic jet-setting, but there is little doubt that he will tackle that difficult post with as much aplomb as everything else he turns his hand to.

As he steps into his new portfolio, a quote from one his greatest heroes, Napoleon Bonaparte, may come to mind: "The great art of governing consists of not letting men grow old in their jobs."


                                         Subject: French news

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