'Sarko' versus Villepin; President Jacques Chirac and His Party Just Got Creamed in Elections. Now the Real Fun Begins

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Byline: Eric Pape, With Marie Valla

French voters spoke loudly and Jacques Chirac said he "heard." But what exactly did the president hear? In recent regional elections, nearly two thirds of French voters picked parties outside the ruling coalition of Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin--a sweeping repudiation. Raffarin tendered his resignation. Chirac refused it, and put him back in charge of a rejigged government that seems like a musical-chairs version of the previous one. Political commentator Carole Barjon went so far as to ask, "Is Jacques Chirac autistic?"

The criticism is extreme. But with three years left in his second term, the 72-year-old Chirac does seem distracted by issues of succession. "There is a gap between what Chirac is trying to say and what people hear," says Dominique Moisi, deputy director of the French Institute for International Relations. Rather than address the concerns expressed by an angry electorate, the president used the cabinet reshuffle to set the stage for a head-to-head battle for France's political future.

The duel pits the country's most popular politician, Nicolas Sarkozy, son of a Hungarian immigrant, against Chirac's chosen favorite, the aristocratic Dominique Galouzeau de Villepin. France has watched Sarkozy's fascinating rise for the better part of a year, savoring his pugnacity and audacity. By declaring his own presidential ambitions, he has provoked the enmity of Chirac, who wants to choose his own successor--and secure his legacy. Yet the president could hardly sack his one minister with truly mass appeal. "Chirac was trapped," says Roland Cayrol, director of a political polling firm. "He couldn't put Sarkozy in," effectively welcoming the wolf. So he put a game in motion.

It begins with Raffarin's reappointment, a gambit summed up by a cartoon in the satirical French newspaper Le Canard Enchaine--a drawing of Chirac wringing the P.M. out like a wet cloth. Chirac would "use" Raffarin for a few more months, according to the caption, during which time he would prepare the ground for a successor.

Enter the dashing diplomat, Dominique de Villepin, foreign minister during France's impassioned United Nations Security Council campaign against a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq. Until then, Villepin was scarcely known in his homeland, let alone the world. In Paris, he had long worked as Chirac's faithful shadow. But his performance at the United Nations won the hearts of a nation overwhelmingly against the war. "Chirac is banking on the popularity of Villepin and his charisma--especially with women," says Moisi. "He is trying to build him up as a counterforce" to the vastly more popular "Sarko."

To give Villepin a boost, Chirac last week appointed him to Sarkozy's job as Interior minister--top cop in a country where being tough on crime can position you for the nation's highest office, as it has Sarkozy. According to Chirac's calculations, the Interior Ministry brief will also give Villepin new heft in public policy. France's intelligence agencies will report to him; he will also oversee the country's antiterrorism efforts--a high-profile post in the event of a French version of the recent Madrid bombings. It's no easy gig. Police identified with the pragmatic, down-to-earth Sarkozy, a warm and outgoing "self-made man, nearly American," as writer Eric Mandonnet at L'Express puts it. By contrast, with his artfully windblown hair and theatrical mien, Villepin looks more like the dreamy intellectual and romantic poet that he is--with several volumes of purple prose to prove it. …