French minister a showman with power


PARIS - When the French foreign minister ended his speech yesterday to the United Nations Security Council and was rewarded with applause, many people who have watched his career half expected him to stand up, flip his head of ample hair backward, stretch his arms fully and take a deep bow.

Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, who has become a household face in America if not a household name, has long been a showman in French politics. He is as famous for his energetic temper as for his suave looks and lyrical style of speaking, and, according to French observers, has never failed to stop in his tracks when he sees a television camera.

Beyond his flourishing style as a spokesman, though, he has also become President Jacques Chirac's most influential adviser and has had a strong hand in France's opposition to the United States in both NATO and the United Nations.

"He is a showman, yes, but a showman with considerable intelligence," said Philippe Moreau-Defarges, senior fellow at the French Institute for International Relations here. "What is interesting about his manner is he takes the license without being a politician. ... He is, in some ways, a lifetime bureaucrat."

Villepin, 49, has never held elected office. An author of books about contemporary French political culture and the last years of Napoleon, he is a self-published poet who peppers speeches with quotations from historical leaders and, occasionally, inserts a poetic flourish of his own, as happened yesterday, when he said, "war is always the sanction of failure."

The son of a French senator, he was schooled to be a senior civil servant, attending the prestigious Institute of Political Science and the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, important training grounds for generations of French politicians. He served in the French embassies in Washington and New Dehli.

His status grew in 1995 when Chirac appointed him secretary-general of the presidential office, a position roughly equivalent to White House chief of staff. Chirac appointed him foreign minister last May.

"They have a relationship like a father and son," said Veronique Soule, foreign editor of the newspaper Liberation. "They are very close, they trust each other and they call each other two or three times a day just to discuss ideas."

The closeness of the relationship may have been demonstrated most clearly by the quickness with which Chirac forgave Villepin in 1997. That is when the president took Villepin's advice to call early parliamentary elections - and thereby lost control of parliament to the Socialist Party.

Conservative members of Chirac's party have not forgiven Villepin, and some have criticized his stance against the United States as an attempt to improve his own prospects for eventually winning elective office. Other members of Chirac's Cabinet have criticized him for underestimating the seriousness of a civil war in the West African nation of Ivory Coast, where French troops are playing a significant role.

French Social Affairs Minister Francois Fillon complained this month to the newspaper Le Figaro that Villepin's "head is swelling and he is becoming so big-headed that he says and does just about everything."

Liberation described Villepin as a "cunning tactician" and "an enthusiast with strong convictions who knows that beyond fine words he will soon have to show results."

And, of course, he has an admirer in Chirac.

"I think de Villepin is what Chirac would want to be if he were a younger man - handsome, appealing and respected among intellectuals," said Moreau-Defarges. "The bond is quite strong and is useful to both of them because politically they are very similar."

The two are in strong agreement, observers said, about wanting to give U.N. weapons inspectors more time in Iraq. When de Villepin and Chirac differ, as happened this month when Villepin underscored France's willingness to use force in Iraq and Chirac then insisted that the French position remained unchanged, the differences have more to do with style than with substance, said Guillaume Parmentier, director of the French Center on the United States here.

"They are both men of big ideas, and the danger for them is not living up to those big ideas," Parmentier said. "Their stance on Iraq is, as much as an honest disagreement about war, a chance to make France matter."

That was evident yesterday both in Villepin's quest to seize the Security Council agenda by proposing another meeting on March 14 and in his rhetoric.

Ending his remarks, Villepin said: "This message comes to you today from an old country, France, from a continent ... that has known war, occupation, barbarity. It is an old country that does not forget and is very aware of all it owes to freedom-fighters who came from America and elsewhere.

"And yet France has always stood upright in the face of history before mankind. Faithful to its values, it wants resolutely to act together with all members of the international community. France believes in our ability to build together a better world."

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