From the Irish Times of January 30:
Antipathy between the former French PM and Nicolas Sarkozy is no secret, writes Ruadhan Mac Cormaic in Paris.
When the tall, angular frame of Dominique de Villepin finally emerged on Thursday from court number 11 in the Palais de Justice – the courtroom where Marie-Antoinette was ordered to be beheaded in 1793 – he bore the look of a man who had just been saved from a similar fate.
Smiling broadly, he was swallowed by a chaotic media scrum while the great hall resounded to his supporters’ cheers of “Bravo, bravo.”
At the Elysée Palace, President Nicolas Sarkozy – who turned 55 that day – was finishing a meeting on the budget deficit when his lawyer, Thierry Herzog, called with news of the verdict. Sarkozy had invested a lot in l’affaire Clearstream. He was a civil plaintiff in the case, and stirred controversy when he branded the defendants “guilty” last year.
The antipathy between the two former protégés of Jacques Chirac is no secret. Neither is de Villepin’s hope – given new impetus by this week’s verdict – to challenge Sarkozy for the presidency in 2012. When Sarkozy met his advisers before issuing a statement, the issue was an awkward one: How to play this?
The Clearstream case has gripped France for years, its ingredients – secret agents, forgeries and political intrigue – giving it the spice of a thriller. Although there were five defendants and 40 civil plaintiffs, it was framed by the media as a duel between two of the best-known politicians in France.
In one corner, Dominique Marie François René Galouzeau de Villepin, the aloof, aristocratic poet-diplomat with a Gaullian tendency to project himself as an accidental statesman answering destiny’s call. In the other, Nicolas Paul Stéphane Sarkozy de Nagy-Bocsa, the go-getting lawyer of immigrant stock who reached the Elysée by working his way through the party ranks.
Newspapers report that Villepin refers to Sarkozy as “the dwarf.” The president thinks his erstwhile colleague is “mad.”
The Clearstream verdict came at a bad time for Sarkozy. Opinion poll ratings have been low, and several recent controversies have caused some to ask whether he has lost his touch. The latest of these involved his handling of a row over Henri Proglio, whom Sarkozy appointed as executive chairman of public utility company EDF. In recent weeks it emerged Proglio has continued to receive a €450,000 salary from the huge environmental services group Veolia (where he stayed on as non-executive chairman) while enjoying his salary of €1.6 million at EDF. Sarkozy first appeared to stand by the double-salary, telling ministers to defend it, before then retreating and telling Proglio to renounce the second one.
With regional elections due in March, Sarkozy could have done without reminding voters of his botched handling of the attempt last year to install his son – a student – as head of the agency that runs La Défence, the business district in western Paris.
In a bid to repair his bond with the people, the president this week submitted himself to a quiz session on prime time TV with 11 ordinary citizens. He performed strongly, attracting nine million viewers and earning positive reviews even from some opponents. “The New Sarkozy,” proclaimed the next morning’s Le Figaro of the listening, consensual and compassionate president presented to the French public.
Sarkozy’s muted response to the Villepin verdict can be seen as part of the same strategy. He was satisfied with the verdict and would not appeal, he said. But as a civil plaintiff, Sarkozy himself could not have mounted a substantive appeal anyway; that was the prosecutor’s prerogative.
Why say it, then? By creating a perception of humility and clemency, Sarkozy – believed by many to come across too aggressively when he talks about Villepin – has remained above the fray, away from the internecine shouting that polls consistently show can turn voters off.
Sarkozy loyalists don’t think Villepin stands much of a chance in 2012, saying he has too little by way of resources, time and support in the party to seriously challenge the incumbent.
Even so, the Elysée has surely calculated that an acrimonious public fight with a rejuvenated internal rival is the last thing the president needs just now.