Behind the cut is an article from the Comment page of last Friday's Financial Times, written by Dominique Moisi, senior adviser at the French Institute for International Relations. While I'm transcribing the piece primarily for the benefit of dominiquelechic and sarkolegrand, I think that my RL French friends who follow politics may also be interested.
France's moment of truth approaches
The presidential campaign has already begun in France, even though elections will not take place for another 18 months. President Jacques Chirac has not openly announced it but, with health concerns underscoring his age, he will most likely not run for re-election in 2007. The left should return to power, considering the morose mood of the country. But the deep ideological divisions within the Socialist party and the open and self-destructive personal ambitions of its various leaders could pave the way for a more unlikely and original duel, between the two main proponents of the right.
No Hollywood scriptwriter could dream up two more opposite personalities than Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister, and Dominique de Villepin, the prime minister. Their rivalry, which now dominates the French political scene, illustrates the dichotomy -- in both France and Europe -- between the need for radical change and reluctance to implement it.
Mr. Sarkozy's bet is that the French are ready for change and are longing for what he calls "modernity". Mr. Sarkozy wants to effect a radical rupture with the past. His character is defined partly by pride in his partly foreign -- Hungarian -- roots and as someone who did not attend the elite training schools, and was never a senior civil servant. For his policies, he wants to learn from other countries' successful experience -- particularly those in the Anglo-Saxon world -- in the economic and security fields. This is a deliberate choice tht makes him the favourite of the French business establishment. Lately, Mr. Sarkozy has also toughened his policies on immigration and security issues, which has drawn the support of the political right if not part of the extreme right, at the risk of alienating the key "centrist" electorate. For the moment Mr. Sarkozy enjoys the full support of the UMP party machine and huge popularity among young party members.
Nature abhors a vacuum and, until recently, nothing or no one could have stopped Mr. Sarkozy's steady rise. No one, perhaps, except himself and now maybe, his unlikely rival -- Mr. de Villepin, appointed prime minister by Mr. Chirac as what could be called his "last weapon of mass seduction" to block Mr. Sarkozy's rise. The 2007 election is still far off but already, one cannot exclude the possibility that Mr. Chirac's bet will succeed. This is for three key reasons: because of what France is, and because of what Mr. de Villepin and Mr. Sarkozy are.
Contrary to Mr. Sarkozy's calculations, the French may not be ready for the radical plunge into "modernity" that he represents. From that standpoint, the shocking images emerging from New Orleans -- with their powerful combined message of state impotence and incompetence -- may have played more in favour of Mr. de Villepin. For it is the prime minister who symbolises the traditional French reliance on a strong, efficient and protective state. If the French want to balance change with a reassuring dose of continuity, Mr. de Villepin fits the bill. His motto could be "vote for me, because of what I am". His striking good looks, his size and natural elegance not only fit the requirements of our media age but also, perhaps, nostalgia for another period, when politics was not the monopoly of politicians. Mr. de Villepin's strength is a formula that is both magic and ambivalent. While he makes the French dream, in the most Gaullist and Gallic tradition, of another world, he also provides a reassuring sense of continuity, if not a comfortable excuse for their refusal to face the need for change. As an aristocrat and a poet, Mr. de Villepin would probably be an irrelevant player in the Anglo-Saxon world. But not in France, where "panache" is to the country what Henry V's "greatness" is to Britain.
In France, Mr. de Villepin can transform his liability into a strength. Because he was never elected, he can present himself not as a politician, but as a statesman, in fact the man who represents a genuine departure from Mr. Chirac and François Mitterand, even if he claims every day his loyalty to the president, presenting himself as his faithful political "son".
Mr. Sarkozy instead presents the image of an immensely gifted politician but not necessarily a reassuring man. And at the end of the day, the decisive factor will be the personal one.
Also in the eyes of many Frenchmen, Mr. de Villepin, as the man who said No to the US at the United Nations Security Council two years ago, may be in a better position than Mr. Sarkozy, dubbed by some critics as the "American", to represent France in the world. The die is not yet cast, for the challenges ahead for Mr. de Villepin are enormous. He may be rapidly destroyed by the country's social mood of discontent that could lead to paralysing new strikes, as it did in 1995. He may not be able to surmount the formidable handicap of not having a party machine behind him.
For Mr. Sarkozy, the ambiguous result of the German elections did not augur well. German voters yesterday, like French voters tomorrow, may have seen the need for change but wanted "soft" -- not radical -- change, a formula that Mr. de Villepin may embody more effectively than Mr. Sarkozy.