When French voters rejected the European Union constitution, they added to the many worries already burdening President Jacques Chirac. Economically, France is stalled. The former boss of the International Monetary Fund, Michel Camdessus, says it may go into irreversible decline unless it reforms taxation, working hours, higher education and welfare.
But the new Prime Minister appointed by Chirac, the exquisitely named Dominique Marie Francois Rene Galouzeau de Villepin, will have none of that. A prolific author, he declared in his latest book,The Shark and the Seagull, that things are actually going France's way, whatever those tiresome statisticians say.
De Villepin takes the long view. He explains that the first globalization, in the Renaissance, was dominated by Spain and the second by "the Anglo-Saxons" in the Industrial Revolution. He asks, "Cannot one wager that the third globalization, that of identities, of cultures and of symbols, will bring a new spirit to French ambition?" France will rise again because the world will embrace French values (among them the "need to correct the distortions of the market by means of regulation").
De Villepin graduated from the elite Ecole nationale d'administration (it is law of journalism that one never mentions this institution without attaching the modifier "elite"). He spent 15 years as a diplomat and since 1995 has served Chirac as chief of his office, foreign minister and interior minister. He's best known for his speech rejecting the war against Iraq.
His rhetoric turns politics into national melodrama. "Our country," he says, "advances only in crises and in tragedy." Or: "Our history is written, like a palimpsest, on the body of a nation stitched with scars." For de Villepin, pomposity is a thing of which you cannot have too much.
In a way that would be outlandish almost anywhere outside France, he looks to the past for authority. More than anyone since Charles de Gaulle, he lives on the wilder shores of French nationalism. In fact, de Gaulle might well find him extreme. As it is possible to be more royalist than the king (a French expression originally), de Villepin appears to be more French than de Gaulle.
The glory of France inspires the endless stream of his florid prose, which may contradict itself but never fails to exhibit passion. He manages, somehow, to make France look pathetic and still pretty damn great.
In 2002 he wrote in The Cry of the Gargoyle: "Today, France is orphaned, staggering and easily abused, but ... she has kept intact the flame of a great nation." In a typical moment of metaphorical excess, he called France an ancient oak tree now in trouble; "Tree surgeons have sprung up at the foot of the tree and are working away at the trunk, while mistletoe proliferates and risks strangling the tree that feeds it." When he briefly turns pragmatic, he makes sure we know he's expressing seventeenth-century pragmatism, as in "France, heir of the pragmatism of Cardinal Richelieu."
De Villepin adores great men, Napoleon above all. He wrote a thick book, The 100 Days, about Napoleon's last campaign, which ended at Waterloo. Typically, he mentions Napoleon, Alexander, Caesar and de Gaulle in the same phrase. For de Villepin they were all great because they invented history and constructed their own destinies rather than being swept along by events. He sees history as poetry in action: Napoleon's last 100 days are "an opening, in the form of a fable or a tale ... which offers a gripping summary of the epic."
Napoleon was "the conjunction of a man and a nation" (roughly what Martin Heidegger said about Hitler). Napoleon lost to Wellington, admittedly, but his cause was so virtuous that Waterloo was "a defeat which gleams with the aura of victory." David Bell, author of The Cult of the Nation in France, claims that this phrase can stand as perfect French self-parody. Apparently Napoleon was defeated only in the sense that Jesus was defeated. So that you won't miss that point, De Villepin titles part of the book, "Waterloo, or the Crucifixion."
If the No Vote in the EU referendum was the French public's rejection of elitism, the appointment of de Villepin appears eccentric. What was Chirac thinking? As Der Spiegel rudely asked, "Has he cracked?" Not necessarily. It's true that public enthusiasm for de Villepin has been muted; but Chirac may have concluded that if the French fear modernization, they want to be fed more nostalgia for national greatness. In that line of work, you can't beat de Villepin.