Many commentators found it ironic that following a May 29 rejection of the EU Constitution by French voters widely interpreted to be a repudiation of an entire political elite and style of governing judged to be too remote from the mass of French citizens, President Jacques Chirac has picked as a new prime minister Dominique de Villepin, an indisputably patrician elitist.  --  Villepin's premiership is certain to be "a fascinating spectacle," writes John Thornhill of the Financial Times of London in a profile of the new prime minister.  --  "Mr. de Villepin is a man 'who is bored by the quotidian, depressed by mediocrity, and reinvigorated by adversity,' according to Nicolas Sarkozy, the populist president of the governing UMP party, who has just returned to government as the prime minister's deputy to form an improbable double act" -- Nicolas Sarkozy being the man widely regarded as the most likely to succeed Jacques Chirac as president, as well as being Villepin's political adversary (hence the improbability).  --  "It was [as France's foreign minister] that Mr. de Villepin shot to international prominence," Thornhill recalls.  "His passionate speech to the United Nations security council in February 2003 denouncing the use of force against Iraq won him appreciative applause in the council chamber, the admiration of the French public, and the lasting animosity of the U.S. administration, which could prove an additional drawback in his new job." ...

POET IN POLITICAL MOTION
By John Thornhill

Financial Times (UK)
June 4, 2005

http://news.ft.com/cms/s/382aa1fa-d497-11d9-9db0-00000e2511c8.html

France is settling down for a fascinating spectacle: the premiership of Dominique Marie François René Galouzeau de Villepin. Whatever else one could say about the new prime minister, his term in office is unlikely to be dull.

This is partly due to the circumstances in which he moves into the Matignon. France's political establishment has been sent reeling by its wrenching defeat in Sunday's referendum on Europe's constitutional treaty. Jacques Chirac's popularity rating has crashed to new lows as he tries to shore up France's place in Europe and grapples with the worst crisis of his 10-year presidency.

But that drama is enlivened by the luxuriant personality of Mr de Villepin himself. Some years ago Denis Healey, the former British chancellor of the exchequer, observed that politicians must develop their own "hinterland" of private interests. In Mr. de Villepin's case, the opposite concern arises: his hinterland seems so expansive that one wonders what room is left for the promontory.

With his vulpine good looks and manic energy, the 51-year-old action man has been described as a poet whose favorite words are verbs. Whether he is running marathons, playing tennis, painting watercolours, growing roses, or writing essays about Napoleon, Mr. de Villepin seems a constant silver-haired blur of activity. During his two years as foreign minister, he made 130 trips abroad. Yet he still found time to write poetry in the back of a military helicopter on the way to talk to rebel leaders in Côte d'Ivoire.

"From the bottom of my pockets, stuck to the back of my smock, hidden in the corner of abacuses, poetry gushed out, scribbled on scraps of paper," he later wrote.

Mr. de Villepin is a man "who is bored by the quotidian, depressed by mediocrity, and reinvigorated by adversity", according to Nicolas Sarkozy, the populist president of the governing UMP party, who has just returned to government as the prime minister's deputy to form an improbable double act.

The new prime minister's immediate challenge is to respond to the anger of French voters expressed in the referendum vote. His top priority is to cut unemployment, currently at 10.2 per cent. The persistent inability of governments, of both left and right, to solve this problem in spite of ceaseless new initiatives has corroded the authority of France's entire political class. As Nicolas Baverez, the historian, has acidly commented: "Everything has been tried to solve the unemployment problem, apart from something that works."

In typical fashion, Mr. de Villepin gave a television interview on Wednesday night in which he talked with burning intensity about the "absolute necessity" of restoring the French people's confidence in the future. The next day he rushed off to a jobs center in the depressed Parisian suburb of Serris, where he vowed to tackle the scourge of unemployment with "determination, enthusiasm, and pragmatism."

In spite of his undoubted panache, Mr. de Villepin appears ill-suited to the task of solving France's economic difficulties and soothing its social discontents. Although he has proved a surprisingly tough interior minister, Mr. de Villepin has no direct experience of economic policy and has spelt out no new thinking so far.

At a time when politicians are condemned for being out of touch with ordinary voters, the patrician Mr. de Villepin also suffers from the twin handicaps of never having held elected office and commanding scant support in parliament. Many UMP MPs still blame him for the disastrous advice he gave Mr. Chirac in 1997 to call an election in the face of mass strikes, a decision that cost many of their former colleagues their jobs.

Mr. de Villepin will also have to reach an accommodation with Mr. Sarkozy, his long-time rival for the French presidency in 2007, who does command the support of those MPs. The prime minister said he "rejoiced" at Mr. Sarkozy's return to government, even though their detestation of each other is the stuff of Paris legend.

Yet it would be rash to write off Mr. de Villepin's chances of success, however daunting his challenges may seem. He will certainly bring much-needed impetus to the government and sizzles with a desire to restore France's faded glory. The weakening of the euro, a by-product of the French and the Dutch No votes, and some fiscal stimulus could temporarily boost economic growth. And he is, for the moment, popular, which is more than could ever be said about his predecessor, the luckless Jean-Pierre Raffarin.

Born in 1953 in Morocco, Mr. de Villepin spent most of his youth outside France sustained by literature and romantic cravings for his native land. It is said that his mother used to slip poems into his pocket so that he could read them in school breaktime. "I dreamt of France, before I knew her," he once said.

After moving to France to complete his education, Mr. de Villepin blazed the well-worn trail of an ambitious politician, graduating from the elite Ecole Nationale d'Administration, racing through the ranks of the diplomatic service, and schmoozing rising political stars, most notably Mr. Chirac.

During Mr. Chirac's first presidential term, Mr. de Villepin served as his chief of staff, where his management style was described as "patting people on the head or kicking them up the backside." The reward for his loyalty was to take charge of the foreign ministry in 2002 at a time of high international tension.

It was in this role that Mr. de Villepin shot to international prominence. His passionate speech to the United Nations security council in February 2003 denouncing the use of force against Iraq won him appreciative applause in the council chamber, the admiration of the French public, and the lasting animosity of the U.S. administration, which could prove an additional drawback in his new job.

Even his supporters say Mr. de Villepin can sometimes be guilty of the cardinal sin of Chiracism: grand gestures without adequate thought. Others suggest that his overblown personality was designed for an earlier, more heroic era. But Mr. de Villepin argues that the present is all that counts.

"We have all dreamt of living in other times, those of the great discoveries, or the musketeers, or the revolution. In each age one must find the force to fight against fate," he wrote in his political essay, The Shark and the Seagull [Original title: Le Requin et la mouette (Plon, 2004). "But has there been an epoch more fascinating, more tumultuous than our own?"