By Peggy Hollinger in Paris
Published May 7, 2006
Speculation mounted on Sunday that French President Jacques Chirac could call on his long-time rival Nicolas Sarkozy to replace Dominique de Villepin, prime minister, who has struggled to assert his authority amid a political scandal involving the country's most senior officials.
The Elysée palace on Sunday denied reports that the interior minister, who is also head of the ruling UMP party, had been asked to consider becoming prime minister. President Chirac had "complete and total confidence in prime minister Dominique de Villepin to fulfill the mission he had been given," a spokeswoman said on Sunday.
But it is clear that Mr de Villepin is under increasing pressure after being accused of involvement in an alleged political smear campaign that targeted Mr Sarkozy and other senior French officials.
Mr. Sarkozy's spokesman did not deny that he would consider replacing Mr de Villepin if asked. French media suggested at the weekend that the subject had been discussed in passing at meetings between the president and Mr Sarkozy on Friday and Saturday.
Noting that there was currently no vacancy, the spokesman said: "The president wants to keep his prime minister."
But if the job became available, Mr Sarkozy's acceptance "would depend on the conditions" made at the time of the offer.
Mr Sarkozy, who might be tempted to accept such an offer in order to restore confidence in the right, had been hoping to resign from the government in the coming months to launch his campaign for the presidential elections next year. But the current political scandal and widespread disillusionment with Mr Chirac's presidency threaten to undermine the UMP's chances next year.
According to Le Monde, the highly regarded French daily, Mr Sarkozy is concerned not to add "a political and institutional crisis to a judicial affair". He is quoted as saying to colleagues: "If I go the divisions would be too strong".
Adding weight to his argument, a poll published yesterday in the Journal du Dimanche, the French weekly, signalled the divided Socialist party was beginning to show concerted support for the dark horse candidate, Ségolène Royal. More than 50 per cent of party members polled supported her as presidential candidate over veterans such as Dominique Strauss-Kahn or her partner and party leader François Hollande.
Meanwhile the pressure on Mr de Villepin is unlikely to disappear in the near future. Mr Sarkozy will testify in the coming days to judges investigatint the political scandal, which could lead to new revelations.
Chirac's endorsement of Villepin (through a spokeswoman) reminds me of GWB's "Brownie, you're doing a heck of a job"; and we know what happened to the FEMA director shortly after that....