The survivor and the musketeer

4th April 2006, Comments 0 comments

President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin: their political and personal partnership is being severely tested. Hugh Schofield and AFP staff take a close-up look at the two men who form the focal point of the latest political crisis.

JACQUES CHIRAC: Scrambling for survival to the end


The crisis over France's contested youth jobs law is a major new test for President Jacques Chirac as he enters the final months of his mandate, with an escalation of social unrest sure to cloud his political legacy.

His physical and political toughness earned him the nickname 'le bulldozer'

Analysts predict a tough last year in power for the 73-year-old president, whose recent attempt to defuse the two-month crisis was greeted with scorn by student protestors and unions.

"Is Jacques Chirac schizophrenic?" asked a scathing editorial in the left-wing Libération after Chirac announced his decision to sign, then immediately amend, the First Employment Contract (CPE), which aimed to get more young people into work by relaxing redundancy rules in the first two years.

"If the conflict drags on or gets worse, even though the head of state has spoken, it will become very tricky for him, and the end of his mandate will be very dark," said Dominique Reynie, of the Sciences Po institute.

His authority would be seriously undermined, and his room for manoeuvre considerably reduced for the coming year, Reynie argued.

"If, however, he manages to bring the conflict back to a more conventional level, unions against government, he will be seen as the one who unblocked the situation," he said.

Though he has etched his name in France's history by twice winning the presidency, in 1995 and 2002, both times Chirac has had difficulty transforming public confidence into concrete action.

A long history of comebacks

Difficulties have been piling up for Chirac since 2004, when French voters punished his centre-right UMP in both local and European elections.

Chirac was badly damaged by French voters' rejection last May of the European constitution, on which he had staked his political prestige, as well as by the flare-up of rioting by ethnic minority youths in the country's poor suburbs last November.

Also last year, the president, until then known for his robust health, suffered a minor stroke that left him unable to travel for weeks.

According to a poll conducted in December, only one percent of the French people wants Chirac to stand for a third term in elections due in the spring of 2007.

Chirac has overcome his share of setbacks during his 40-year career, including several run-ins with the street.

In 1986, when he was prime minister under the Socialist president François Mitterand, his education minister was forced to resign following the death of a student during a wave of anti-reform protests.

*quote1*His first presidential mandate in 1995 went off with a bang, lurching straight into an autumn of mass protests which forced the government to abandon its plans for social security and pension reform.

From 1997 to 2002 he was forced to share power with Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin after calling a disastrous early election.

In 2002, he won a return trip to the Elysée in a resounding second-round victory over far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, but this was seen as much more a rejection of Le Pen than approval of Chirac's policies.

Forty years in politics

Born in November 1932 in Paris, Chirac served in the Algerian war and in 1956 married Bernadette, with whom he has two daughters.

He first won office 41 years ago, on a local city council in his southwest region of Corrèze, serving as deputy and in various ministerial roles, and was named prime minister in 1974 under president Valéry Giscard d'Estaing.

But the two men fell out and, in 1976, Chirac set up his rival right-wing party, the Rally for the Republic (RPR).

The following year he became Paris's first mayor in more than a century, a position that allowed him prestige and influence, but which also offered dangerous temptations.

Paris city hall became — it is alleged — the centre of a vast money-making racket to finance the RPR, and Chirac's refusal to testify in ongoing judicial probes — explained by his presidential immunity — has harmed his credibility.

From abroad, Chirac is seen both as the defender of a multilateral world in the face of US dominance, and the personification of an arrogant France. He is well liked in the Arab world, but viewed with contempt by many in the United States.

For many, there are too many question marks over his political beliefs and his integrity.

At one point an anti-European Gaullist, Chirac became a champion of the single currency. He exploded nuclear bombs in the Pacific, and then discovered the environment.

But even his enemies admit that Chirac's chameleon-like ability to adapt has kept him in public life for 40 years.

DOMINIQUE DE VILLEPIN: France's political musketeer

The perfect image of the romantic poet-politician

Poet, admirer of Napoléon Bonaparte and unelected grandee, French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin is playing the highest stakes — his own chances in next year's presidential race — in his showdown with the street over a youth jobs law.

A political musketeer who believes in the force of will and the power of personal action, the 52-year-old former diplomat is at a turning point in his career — with oblivion beckoning if he fails to carry off his wager and cedes victory to the union-student alliance.

*quote2*And if he does fall, there will be many even within his own Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) who will argue he brought it on himself: by a compulsive high-handedness that critics say has been his hallmark since he entered the service of President Jacques Chirac more than 10 years ago.

"(Villepin) is filled by the conviction that glory awaits him and that his hour will come. That is why he thinks the whole world is at his service," writes the leading French journalist Franz-Olivier Giesbert in a best-selling new biography of Chirac.

Finding his personal destiny

*sidebar1*Appointed 10 months ago in the wake of the debacle over France's rejection of the EU constitution, Villepin initially proceeded with caution — earning a reputation as a "social" reformer compared to his abrasively right-wing rival, the interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

But with his First Employment Contract (CPE) — an attempt to prise open the youth labour market by lowering levels of job protection — the prime minister rediscovered his instinct for the grand gesture and a go-it-alone sense of personal destiny, critics say.

Instead of consulting with unions and employers, Villepin chose to push through the measure single-handedly — banking that a combination of political elan and dogged determination would see his government through inevitable opposition.

As he himself wrote in a 2002 book of pensées, 'The Cry of the Gargoyle', "A trial of strength almost always works in favour of the demonstrators because they have the noise, the image, the numbers...

"But once a decision has been taken, a government must not recoil if it wants to work for the common good."

The internationalist

Villepin at a autumn photo opportunity before his recent troubles

Born in Morocco in November 1953, Dominique Galouzeau de Villepin was brought up in Venezuela and New York, where he acquired his faultless English. He studied at the elite National Administration School (ENA) in Paris before embarking on a career at the foreign ministry.

In 1995 he was cherry-picked by Chirac to be his cabinet chief, and though he made a major blunder two years later by recommending a disastrous dissolution of parliament — leading to five years of Socialist government — he remained extremely close to the president.

After Chirac's 2002 re-election, Villepin became foreign minister and his accomplished performance at the United Nations the next year denouncing US war aims in Iraq won him recognition around the world.

With his sleek head of greying hair, nobleman's profile and passion for poetry, Villepin cultivates the image of a dashing romantic.

But his apparent conviction that he was destined to face down the 'street' has brought him to a dangerous impasse: collapsing popularity ratings, a resurgent Socialist opposition, mutterings within his own party, and — more than likely — a classic French fudge to end the crisis.

"The head of the government has lost much political credit. After what has happened it is hard to see how a year from now he can persuade voters to send him to the Elysée," said political commentator Christophe Barbier.

"Muddling speed with precipitation and confusing determination with pig-headedness, he has set himself at odds with the French. Whatever the end result of this conflict they will take their revenge in the ballot box," he said.

April 2006

Copyright AFP + Expatica

Subject: French news, French politicians, French government, Jacques Chirac, Dominique de Villepin

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