De Villepin has lost everyone's confidence except Chirac's
As was once said of former British prime minister John Major but is even more apt of Dominique de Villepin, France's prime minister, he is in office but not in power. He has lost virtually everyone's confidence, except, so far, that of the one man who can fire him: his president and long-time patron, Jacques Chirac. They both now chalk up less than 25 per cent approval in the opinion polls. The strain is showing in Mr. de Villepin. Last week he lost his temper with the Socialist opposition leader in parliament and sued the journalist authors of two recent books about his involvement in the Clearstream affair.
In his latest setback, Mr. de Villepin has been forced by his own UMP party to postpone until autumn legislation to privatise Gaz de France. This is required under the prime minister's plan to bolt the state-controlled utility on to Suez (in order to save the latter from succumbing to foreign takeover). The delay reduces the chances of the controversial legislation passing as next year's presidential election draws nearer. But Mr. de Villepin had no choice. The bulk of the UMP party, led by his rival Nicolas Sarkozy, have had their fill of a prime minister who was sprung on them less than a year ago by Mr. Chirac and who in turn has sprung unwelcome legislative ideas on them.
Compounding France's current confusion are the flaws and fault-lines inherent in the country's political system. One is the ideological fuzziness of political parties which chiefly function as personal vehicles for presidential candidates. This is particularly true of the UMP neo-Gaullists, who never seem to be able to occupy a fixed position on the left-right spectrum and therefore drift all over the place. GdF is a case in point. As part of his autarchic plan to build a national energy champion Mr. de Villepin wants to privatise it. This plan is resisted by his supposedly more free-market rival, Mr. Sarkozy, who two years ago promised the GdF unions that the state stake in the utility would never fall below 70 per cent. But some in the opposition are also cutting their moorings; the Socialist presidential frontrunner, Ségolène Royal, is currently outflanking Mr. Sarkozy on the right on law-aqnd-order issues. Such shifts could be welcomed as useful pragmatism if they were not so patently personal opportunitism.
Some of the anti-Villepin group in the UMP are also starting to complain about the fifth republic's subordination of parliament to the monarchical presidency. Unfortunately, such gripes are mainly the result of the war within the UMP to succeed Mr. Chirac, and are most unlikely to lead to any necessary recasting of France's institutions. Unless or until that happens, the president remains boss and the prime minister his creature. Changing the monkey - replacing Mr. de Villepin as prime minister - would still leave Mr. Chirac grinding the organ and calling the tune for one more year.
And before anyone complains about this: "... Mr. de Villepin has been forced by his own UMP party ...", the writer didn't have a lot of space to work with, and I'm sure he knew that the people likely to read the piece would understand the actual Villepin - UMP relationship. Anyone else would see nothing amiss in the comment, and would probably consider the fuller explanation TMI (too much information).