Political Duel By Longtime Rivals Captivates France

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Nicolas Sarkozy and Dominique de Villepin during a 2005 news conference i

Dominique de Villepin (right) and Nicolas Sarkozy ponder a question during a news conference in 2005. Sarkozy, now France's president, served as interior minister while Villepin was prime minister. Francois Mori/AP hide caption

itoggle caption Francois Mori/AP
Nicolas Sarkozy and Dominique de Villepin during a 2005 news conference

Dominique de Villepin (right) and Nicolas Sarkozy ponder a question during a news conference in 2005. Sarkozy, now France's president, served as interior minister while Villepin was prime minister.

Francois Mori/AP

In France, a political duel between two of the country's top statesmen is riveting the nation.

One of the politicians is President Nicolas Sarkozy. The other is his longtime rival, former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, who was accused of taking part in a plot to destroy Sarkozy's career by associating him with a scandal involving kickbacks from an arms deal.

Now, the two men are fighting it out in a Paris courtroom and in the court of public opinion. It is a clash of the titans that has captivated the country, says Nicolas Domenach, editor of the political magazine Marianne.

"There is a Romanesque quality to this fight," Domenach says. "It is like two gamecocks going at each other in the ring until death. But this is also a confrontation between two models of French society — the traditional vision represented by the literary Villepin, who is a romantic man of letters; and the modern way incarnated by the capitalist, image-conscious and Americanized Sarkozy."

Aristocrat Vs. Anti-Intellectual

Some say you have to look back to the French revolution and the rivalry between Danton and Robespierre to find such diametrically opposed political foes as Sarkozy and Villepin.

Tall, dashing and aristocratic Dominique Marie Francois Rene Galouzeau de Villepin writes novels and poetry. Many say Villepin believes he has been anointed by destiny to serve his nation, even though he has never been elected to any position. Villepin attended elite French schools and rose through the ranks of diplomacy.

Sarkozy is a nervy, short, anti-intellectual — the son of a Hungarian immigrant who fought his way up the political ladder.

Sarkozy and Villepin both served in the Cabinet of former President Jacques Chirac, and it was as Chirac's foreign minister that Villepin made his famous speech at the United Nations opposing the U.S. invasion of Iraq.

"I think the U.N. speech in 2003 was Villepin's noble moment when he stood like his heroes de Gaulle and Napoleon and tried to hold back the tide. He sees himself as a resistant, and he apparently talks about himself as a resistant like against the Nazi occupiers," says Charles Bremner, a correspondent for the Times of London, who has been following the Sarkozy-Villepin rivalry for the past decade. "And of course the enemy is not the Germans this time; the enemy is Sarkozy."

Acquittal And Appeal

Villepin and Sarkozy's hatred for one another isn't new. Privately Villepin is said to refer to Sarkozy as "the Dwarf." But their conflict came to the surface when Villepin was accused of associating Sarkozy with a scandal involving kickbacks from an arms deal. The trial, dubbed the French Watergate, began last October. In what was seen as a blow to Sarkozy, Villepin was acquitted of all charges.

"My innocence has finally been recognized," Villepin said at the time. "I salute the courage of this court, which has put justice and the rule of law above politics."

Julien Herve, a writer for Les Guignols de l'Info, holds the Villepin and Sarkozy puppets. i

Julien Herve, a writer for "Les Guignols de l'Info," a satirical puppet show, holds the Villepin and Sarkozy puppets. He says the rivalry between the two has electrified the political scene. Eleanor Beardsley/NPR hide caption

itoggle caption Eleanor Beardsley/NPR
Julien Herve, a writer for Les Guignols de l'Info, holds the Villepin and Sarkozy puppets.

Julien Herve, a writer for "Les Guignols de l'Info," a satirical puppet show, holds the Villepin and Sarkozy puppets. He says the rivalry between the two has electrified the political scene.

Eleanor Beardsley/NPR

Sarkozy, who once vowed to hang those guilty of smearing him from a butcher's hook, was said to be enraged by the verdict. The next day, the Paris prosecutor, who is indirectly appointed by the president, announced that he would appeal against the verdict. Villepin will be back in court by the end of this year.

Power And Liberation

"Les Guignols de l'Info" is an extremely popular satirical puppet show. Every night on television, the lifelike marionettes impersonate and skewer the country's political elite.

A recent episode portrays Villepin holed up as a clandestine resistance fighter. In bursts Sarkozy and his henchmen, dressed like Gestapo agents. As marionette Villepin tries to protest, puppet Sarkozy tells him, "save your pretty little speeches for the U.N."

Julien Herve, a writer for the show, says the rivalry between the two men is electrifying an otherwise dull political scene. There's talk of Villepin running for president in 2012. While most people think he has no chance of beating Sarkozy, he could divide the right and cause Sarkozy to lose to the Socialist candidate.

"Sarkozy clearly has all the power, but that's what makes this so great," Herve says. "Villepin thinks he's going to be called back to save the country just like de Gaulle did. He thinks he's going to liberate the French from Sarkozy."

Some say with Villepin now tied up in court again, he won't be able to run for president. Others predict that Sarkozy's obsession to destroy him could turn Villepin into a victim and popular hero. Whatever the outcome, it's worth noting that both Danton and Robespierre finished their political careers under the guillotine.

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