In 1796 the dashing young Napoleon Bonaparte rallied his flagging troops at the Battle of Arcole bridge by seizing a tricolour flag and leading the charge into the Austrian army's fire. The scene was later immortalised in a painting by Horace Vernet, burnishing the legend of Napoleon's heroism.
France's contemporary cartoonists have been portraying Dominique de Villepin as a modern-day Napoleon, an impressive squiggle of flowing hair and flaring nostrils, storming over the Arcole bridge. Only in this depiction, the prime minister is not followed by any troops while Nicolas Sarkozy, his rival lieutenant, ignores the fray and dangles a fishing line over the side.
Mr. de Villepin has certainly been leading from the front in attempting to reform France's inflexible labour laws but -- for the moment, at least -- his charge seems more reckless than brave. His hasty introduction of a contentious first job contract (CPE), designed to tackle France's high youth unemployment, has led to an outburst of mass protests across the country. More than 1m students and trade unionists took to the streets on Tuesday to demonstrate against the government's law with more protests planned for next week.
This intense public reaction has boosted the opposition Socialist party and spread dismay, verging on panic, among Mr. de Villepin's own supporters on the right. While declaring his solidarity with the government, Mr. Sarkozy, the interior minister and leader of the governing UMP party, who is preparing to bid for the presidency next year, has called for the law to be suspended pending further changes.
The prime minister's personal approval rating has collapsed from 47 per cent in January to 29 per cent in March, seemingly shredding his own hopes of contesting the presidential elections. Hooligans have even exploited the latest civil unrest to bring violence to the heart of Paris, rioting last week on the well-manicured lawns outside Napoleon's tomb. Yet in spite of it all, Mr. de Villepin has resulutely refused to withdraw the CPE, which he insists will help marginalised youths in blighted suburbs find jobs. He also appears determined to show once and for all that it is the legitimate government of France, rather than militants on the streets, that runs the country.
Buy why has Mr. de Villepin incited such a risky trial of strength at such a delicate time? Is he a courageous -- but somewhat naive -- idealist prepared to brave unpopularity for the sake of the disadvantaged or -- as his opponents suggest -- a political opportunist whose cynical calculations have simply gone awry?
Impetuosity has certainly pockmarked the career of 52-year-old Mr. de Villepin, who has been involved in some of the most tempestuous domestic and international dramas of the past decade. In 1997, as head of the presidential staff, Mr. de Villepin persuaded Jacques Chirac, president, to dissolve parliament and call fresh elections after the rightwing government of the day faced mass protests against its reform programme. It was a disastrous decision leading to a humiliating defeat for Mr. Chirac's party and opening the way to five years of Socialist government. Mr. Chirac's wife, Bernadette, bestowed the nickname "Nero" on Mr. de Villepin for his incendiary talents.
In 2002, as foreign minister, Mr. de Villepin famously championed international opposition to the Iraq war, making an emotional plea for peace at the United Nations in New York. But even French diplomats admit that Mr. de Villepin went too far in touring Africa to cajole UN security council members to vote against a second resolution authorising force. That was unacceptable behaviour from a country that claimed friendship with the US and caused enormous damage to transatlantic relations.
Mr. de Villepin has been equally impassioned in making the argument for the CPE. In a recent television interview, he said the government had an urgent duty to respond to last year's urban riots by disaffected youths. The CPE was a practical measure to encourage employers to take on new workers at little risk. "We have 23 per cent unemployment among the young, 40 per cent among the non-qualified," he said. "Should we stand with our arms crossed as we have done all these years? Should we lower our eyes? Or should we treat the problem?"
However, Mr. de Villepin's opponents argue the treatment could only exacerbate the disease. Rather than curing job insecurity among the young, it might only worsen it. By giving employers the right to fire workers under the age of 26 at any time during a two-year trial period, the CPE could increase discrimination between labour market "insiders", who benefit from full job protection, and those "outsiders" who do not.
Jacques Attali, the former head of the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development who now runs a microfinance agency providing loans to young entrepreneurs in the suburbs, says that the CPE is unlikely to create more jobs, only economic growth will do that. But the CPE will make employment more precarious for all young workers. "We are going from a situation where it is impossible to fire anyone for any reason to a situation where you can fire anyone without any reason, which is an extreme. An intermediary situation would have been good," he says.
Zake Laidi, a professor at Sciences Po university in Paris, says France undoubtedly needs a more flexible labour market. But Mr. de Villepin chose to ram an ill-prepared law with questionable economic benefits through parliament with no consultation. "De Villepin is much more concerned about the symbolic dimension of politics than by its technicalities. He is not disturbed by details. He thinks he is running a war," he says. "This reform is scaring people but at the same time is probably inefficient because it widens the gaps between insiders and outsiders."
Mr. de Villepin appears to be calculating that he can face down the protestors, reduce youth unemployment and emerge as the visionary strong man of French politics before next year's elections. But it is an extraordinary gamble of near-Napoleonic ambition.
As it happens, the precise events of the battle of Arcole bridge are disputed. One version has it that a fellow officer so feared for Napoleon's life that he pushed him off the bridge into the river with the words: "If you fall, we are all lost. You shall go no further."
The question now is whether Mr. Chirac will stand by his impetuous officer to the bitter end or throw him off the bridge in the face of intensifying fire to save them both. The next few weeks for France could prove momentous.