Sarkozy’s arch-enemy crashes into presidential battle
Dominique de Villepin, the man who President Nicolas Sarkozy once said he wanted “hung on a butcher’s hook”, announced his bid for the French presidency Sunday sending the incumbent’s camp into panic mode despite his low polling.
Tanned, suave, well-spoken (even when he swears, which is often), and hovering at almost a foot above Sarkozy in height, Dominique de Villepin would beat the current president hands down in a beauty pageant. His speeches, unlike Sarkozy’s cringe-inducing expulsions, are a joy to listen to. Taking to the UN Security Council stage in 2003 to argue against the imminent war in Iraq, he received a rare standing ovation, which made him a national hero at home.
Villepin chomped his way through a string of high profile posts under France’s hugely popular former president Jacques Chirac, serving as his chief of staff, prime minister and foreign affairs minister. But Sarkozy wasn’t far behind. It was during those balmy Chirac days that the pair developed their bitter rivalry, as both men vied to succeed the ageing president. Today, Villepin is small fry compared with his arch-enemy. A poll published on Sunday by French opinion study group LH2 revealed that just one per cent of the French electorate would vote for him, while Sarkozy, despite being largely despised, has managed to hang on to 26 per cent.
Villepin blames his lowly stance on a string of corruption scandals, the latest of which was supposed to have him “hung on a butcher’s hook” according to Sarkozy, who accused Villepin of trying to smear him in what was described as “the trial of the decade” in France. “Even if everything has been done over the last six years to push me away from political life, with a series of false accusations, I intend to defend a certain idea of France in the forthcoming election,” Villepin told TF1 TV channel on December 11 during his surprise announcement.
Sarkozy and Villepin in 2006 (AFP).
The news was met with a wave of bemusement on Twitter, and by the time the morning papers went to press, Villepin’s motives had been dissected, chewed over and spat out in opinion columns across the country. “[What we’ve seen] is the tip of the iceberg,” wrote the eastern daily Le Journal de la Haut-Marne. “His real motives are far more complex. He knows that [Sarkozy], suffering in the polls, will need a reserve of voters in the second round. He can offer his pool of support to the president, in exchange for some say over the cabinet once Sarkozy is elected.”
Regional daily La Nouvelle République du Centre ouest agreed that Villepin, along with more popular centre-right candidate François Bayrou, who has 13 per cent of support, will inevitably lend his supporters to Sarkozy in the second round. “Despite plenty of teeth-gnashing from the Elysée, they know that they’ve still got five months before [the election].”
But according to central regional La République du Centre, the Elysée has every right to be concerned. “Both [Villepin and Bayrou] will both be targeting Sarkozy [in their campaigns]. That is where the real danger lies: political infighting [among the rightwing].”
Sarkozy camp jittery
Junior UMP minister Nadine Morano called on Villepin Monday to give up his plans and rally behind Sarkozy. “[Villepin] is a man on his own, without financial means, without a political movement... It is in the public interests of France (for the right) to form a bloc around the president. The public interest should come before personal ambition.” The one per cent of votes he holds is clearly deemed precious to Sarkozy, who is failing to catch up with opposition rival and frontrunner, François Hollande, who is five percentage points ahead in the polls at 31.5 per cent.
Other commentators also queried how Villepin was planning to fund his campaign, with left-leaning online website Rue89 adding a list of other handicaps that could see him out of the race: his party being unable to run a competitive campaign; his manifesto mirroring that of François Bayrou, who has already drummed up far more support; and his association with what seems like an impossible string of corruption cases.
An online poll by daily Le Parisien however found that some 55 per cent of people thought Villepin right in running for the presidency.