De Villepin, Dominique

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Dominique De Villepin

Dominique de Villepin (born 1953) became prime minister of France during a cabinet reshuffle by French president Jacques Chirac in the spring of 2005.

Villepin was a somewhat surprising choice for the job, partly because he had never held any elected office, but his political career had been closely linked with that of Chirac's during the preceding decade. Villepin achieved a measure of international renown during a stint as France's foreign minister in early 2003, when he challenged U.S. plans to invade Iraq at a United Nations forum. He is also the author of several volumes of poetry and a biography of Napoleon Bonaparte. "It is very rare to meet someone like him," said Chirac of his protégé, according to Times of London correspondent Charles Bremner, "who is at one and the same time a poet and a very good commando leader."

Villepin hails from a well-connected family whose roots are in the département, or province, of Yonne. He was born Dominique Marie François René Galouzeau de Villepin on November 14, 1953, in Rabat, the capital of Morocco. His father, Xavier, was a diplomat with France's foreign service, and was posted to the North African country at the time. The family later lived in Venezuela during Villepin's formative years, and some years later his father was elected to the French Senate.

Trained for the Civil Service

As a young man, Villepin studied at one of his country's grandes écoles, the prestigious colleges that train the political, cultural, and economic elite of France. His college was the Institut d'Etudes Politiques de Paris, or Paris Institute of Political Studies, and he went on to the École nationale d'administration, a near-obligatory stop for any future government bureaucrat. But Villepin also earned degrees in law and literature before beginning his first job with the French foreign affairs department in 1980, as a member of an advising committee on Franco-African relations. Four years later he was posted to the French embassy in Washington, D.C., where he served as a media spokesperson for five years. Between 1989 and 1992 he lived in India as an officer with the French embassy in New Delhi, and he then returned to Paris, becoming head adviser at the Foreign Ministry on African Affairs. In 1993 the French foreign minister, Alain Juppé, appointed him to serve as his chief of staff.

Juppé became a leading figure in the Rassemblement pour la Republique (Rally for the Republic, or RPR), the right-wing political party founded by Jacques Chirac in 1976. Villepin was tapped to run Chirac's 1995 presidential campaign, which resulted in a victory for Chirac and the party. As thanks, Villepin was appointed secretary-general of the Élysée Palace, the official residence and office of the French president. Two years later, the RPR lost a general election that Villepin had urged Chirac to hold somewhat ahead of schedule. The RPR lost some of its seats in the French National Assembly to the Socialists, and Villepin was widely blamed for the setback. When he tried to submit his letter of resignation, Chirac refused to accept it.

Villepin remained secretary-general of the Élysée Palace until 2002, when Chirac was re-elected to a second term. A new prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, appointed Villepin as the country's foreign minister. It was a job with immense prestige, but some of Villepin's political foes claimed that he was far too inexperienced for the post. Nevertheless, he survived his first major challenge in the role, when a crisis in Ivory Coast, the West African nation, erupted soon afterward. Religious-fueled unrest led to an attack on French troops stationed in the country, and Villepin ordered a swift military response that decimated the rebels' air-strike capabilities. He also negotiated a tenuous truce to avoid further skirmishes.

Led Opposition to Iraq Invasion

Villepin soon had a more threatening crisis to manage at the Foreign Ministry. The United States, determined to oust Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, was claiming that weapons inspection teams sent to the Middle Eastern nation under the auspices of the United Nations were being prevented from carrying out their duties. U.S. President George W. Bush was attempting to gather international support for a U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, but three of the four other permanent members of the United Nations (UN) Security Council—France, China, and Russia—were opposed to the plan. The Security Council's resolutions are designed to maintain peace and stability between all member nations of the UN, and all signees to the UN Charter must abide by these decisions.

In January of 2003 Villepin warned that Europe would unite and oppose any unnecessary aggression toward Iraq. A month later he delivered an impassioned speech before the Security Council, reiterating the Chirac government's opposition to the use of force against Iraq. Germany also sided with France, while Russia and China were similarly wary of aggressive military action to oust an unfriendly ruler. "In this temple of the United Nations, we are the guardians of an ideal, the guardians of conscience," Villepin said that day, according to Bremner. "This onerous responsibility and immense honour we have must lead us to give priority to disarmament through peace." His words were greeted by a round of applause, a rare event inside in Security Council chambers.

Villepin was the target of harsh words from the Bush White House, but he reminded interviewers that the goal of civilized nations should be to promote peace and stability in the more troubled regions of the world, not provoke hostility. He responded to claims that he and France both harbored an anti-American bias by asserting that he had lived in the United States for five years, and enjoyed the experience immensely. In an interview with New York Times writer Elaine Sciolino, he maintained that he was quite pro-American. "To act like I do, you have to know how much I love America," he told the newspaper.

Critics of Villepin pointed to his 2001 biography about the last hundred days of Napoleon, Les Cent-jours, ou L'esprit de sacrifice (The Hundred Days, or the Spirit of Sacrifice), and warned that the foreign minister seemed to be making a bid to reassert French power on the world's stage. "Villepin may pose in the United Nations as the great defender of reason, prudence, and international law against an arrogant, foolhardy, and unreasonable America," noted one scholar of French history, David A. Bell, in the New Republic, who went on to assert that the book "suggests that, in fact, he is a man lacking firm political principles, romantically besotted with raw political power, and ready to overlook misdeeds committed in its name—but only when the power in question is French."

Became Interior Minister

By this point, Villepin's RPR had merged with two other parties to become the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (Union for a Popular Movement, or UPM). His main rival within the party ranks was the equally young and charismatic French politician Nicolas Sarkozy, whose flair for a memorable media quip had made him France's most popular conservative politician, according to polls. In a cabinet reshuffle in March of 2004, Sarkozy switched jobs from Interior Minister to Finance Minister, and Villepin was made the new Interior Minister. His year-plus tenure in this post was a controversial one, highlighted by his stance against radical Muslim clerics who headed mosques or organizations among France's five-million-strong Muslim community. Villepin claimed some of these sites or groups served as part of a secretive support network for international Islamic terrorism. As Interior Minister he issued a controversial law that required all Muslim clerics in France to take mandatory courses-offered only in the French language, though only a third of them spoke it fluently-in moderate Muslim theology and French secularism.

On May 29, 2005, France held a referendum on adopting the European Constitution, the next step in a fully integrated European Union. French voters rejected it, which was widely considered a no-confidence vote for the Chirac government. A stagnant economy, high unemployment, and worries about pan-European rules forever ending some of the historic job protections that French workers still enjoyed were all factors that appeared to make voters uneasy. Raffarin resigned as prime minister, and Chirac appointed Villepin in his stead. Again, his critics said that he was not experienced enough to hold the post, let alone shepherd the nation through a particularly difficult identity crisis. Newspapers in London, a country that had long made a sport of mocking French pretensions and political ambitions, immediately published a passage from Villepin's latest book, Le Cri de la Gargouille (The Cry of the Gargoyle): "France is a large old oak tree, full of an everlasting sap," Villepin expounded, according to the Guardian excerpt. "It is a tree that has thrived and spread for thousands of years in a unique soil, that has been both hospitable and open to all kinds of invasions, whose population is both diverse and yet homogeneous, whose spirit tends to be both rigorous and aesthetically inclined."

Though Sarkozy was considered Villepin's top rival for power, the new prime minister took the unusual step of appointing Sarkozy to a key cabinet post equal to that of a minister of state; in effect, it made Sarkozy the number-three person in France, after Chirac and Villepin. The political futures of all three would be affected by the days of civil unrest that took place in October and November of 2005. The trouble began in a Paris suburb after the deaths by electrocution of two teenagers of North African descent, who were running from a standard police identification check. Long-simmering resentments over racial discrimination erupted, and took the form of car torchings. The unrest quickly spread to other French cities and even across the border into neighboring European Union countries. Nearly 9,000 cars were burned, and Sarkozy was widely condemned for claiming the violence was the work of organized gangs, and that the outer-ring suburbs where immigrants lived needed to be "Karcherised," which refers to a high-pressure industrial cleaning product. His words were said to have further inflamed tensions in the region.

Compared to de Gaulle

Chirac waited nearly ten days before declaring martial law in an attempt to curb the unrest, and the crisis was viewed as the final nail in the coffin of his political career. Villepin's equally cautious response was also mocked, with one writer for London's Times imagining the journal entries the prime minister might have written during the crisis. "They burn the cars; yet ultimately, could it not be said that the cars burn them?" wrote Hugo Rifkind in imitation of Villepin's elaborate literary style in both his written works and public speeches. "They fight us and we fight them. Yet are we fighting? Or are we dancing, as France has always danced since gates were breached in 1789?"

Villepin's supporters claimed that his reaction was at least less distasteful than that of Sarkozy's, and a few even compared Villepin to Charles de Gaulle, the most significant French leader of the twentieth century. Others felt the comparison failed to reflect a changing France of the twenty-first century. Rather than seeing him as a new de Gaulle, wrote Bremner, "for many French … the image of the dashing, intellectual and aristocratic M. de Villepin really spoke for the continuing failure of the elite to connect with the masses beyond Paris."

Both Villepin and Sarkozy will likely vie for the UPM ballot in the French presidential elections scheduled for 2007. Married to Marie-Lauer Le Gay, Villepin is the father of three and claims to thrive best on less than five hours of sleep a night. In addition to his government duties and literary output, he also runs marathons.


Guardian (London, England), June 1, 2005; November 9, 2005.

Independent (London, England), January 22, 2003.

New Republic, April 14, 2003.

New York Times, March 8, 2003.

Times (London, England), June 1, 2005; November 9, 2005; November 12, 2005.

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Dominique de Villepin

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