Chirac protege, nemesis add tension to Cabinet


PARIS - In this French tale of political duels and palace intrigue, there are only two musketeers. And they are not inseparable companions.

They are the dominant figures in France's new Cabinet: Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy. Both were appointed after voters rejected the proposed European Union constitution last month in a referendum, driving President Jacques Chirac's popularity to its lowest point of his 10 years in office.

Chirac, toughened by four decades in politics, responded by tapping de Villepin, his protege, to run a reshuffled government stocked mainly with loyalists. Their announced mission: fighting unemployment. The apparent unspoken mission: restoring Chirac's popularity and preserving his power until the 2007 presidential election.

If the 72-year-old Chirac does not run for a third term, he is expected to anoint a successor, probably de Villepin. But in an unusual move reflecting the gravity of the crisis and the calculus of power, the president handed the coveted Interior Ministry to his nemesis within the party, Sarkozy.

The tensions grow out of Sarkozy's tormented history with Chirac, once his mentor. Chirac has never forgiven Sarkozy, 50, for supporting a rival for the presidency in 1995, by most accounts. But Chirac has ceded power to Sarkozy because of the younger man's talents and his strong support in their center-right party, the Union for a Popular Movement.

During the past three years, Sarkozy served a previous tenure as Chirac's interior minister and then economy minister. Last year, Sarkozy was elected president of the party, a post he retains. Despite general dislike for the Chirac administration, Sarkozy remains one of the most popular leaders in France. He is a top contender for the presidential election.

The son of a Hungarian immigrant, Sarkozy presents himself as a pragmatic maverick bucking an elite groomed in exclusive institutions such as the National School of Administration, which both Chirac and de Villepin attended.

Sarkozy blames the country's prolonged economic slump on the state-driven "French model" of governance. He has pushed impatiently for British- and U.S.-style free-market reform - the "Anglo-Saxon liberalism" that the president and prime minister disdain.

Sarkozy's economics and law-and-order image make him popular on the right. At the same time, he holds appeal that crosses party lines on the other side: He is a rare advocate of affirmative action.

Critics point out that he's no country boy recently arrived from the provinces, but a wealthy lawyer who got his start as mayor of Neuilly-sur-Seine, an upscale suburb. Nonetheless, he still talks like an outsider intent on shaking up the system.

Sarkozy has a high-powered rival in de Villepin, the author of books on Napoleon, geopolitics and poetry. He seems better suited to making big-picture speeches, such as the impassioned address to the United Nations against the Iraq war that made him famous outside France in 2003, than wrestling with bread-and-butter domestic issues, political analysts say.

Although he has never run for office and has lower approval ratings than Sarkozy, de Villepin is widely believed to have presidential aspirations; his new post gives him a platform.

So it seems inevitable that the duo will cross swords. That would further weaken a government facing threats of street protests by leftists, emboldened by the defeat of the EU referendum and suspicious of a government plan to spur hiring by loosening labor regulations.

The first days of the government have brought maneuvering, scheming and talk of action. De Villepin announced that he would freeze a planned tax cut in order to pump an extra $5.5 billion into job creation, focusing on young people and small businesses. He sounded like Sarkozy in his critique of the current malaise, but he staunchly defended the French approach.

Sarkozy, on his first day as minister, hurried to the southern city of Perpignan, where violence has pitted North African and Gypsy communities against each other. He commended police for quelling the riots.

"I am here to do my job, and my job is to get rid of the thugs in France," Sarkozy told a contingent of hundreds of officers. "I am not behind you but beside you and, if you want, in front of you. You have full support."

Chirac's motives are enigmatic. Some analysts theorize that the president set up a de Villepin-Sarkozy battle to boost his own stature and remake himself as an elder statesman above the fray.

With two years left in his five-year mandate, a re-election bid by Chirac appears increasingly difficult. His popularity dived from 42 percent to 26 percent in a month, according to one poll.

The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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