While I was away, I realized that I have failed to discuss the recent French elections and subsequent reshuffling of the government. Since these events didn’t receive much coverage here, I thought I should say a little about them.
Basically, Chirac’s party was hammered in regional elections at the end of March. As the Washington Post’s Jim Hoagland put it, “French voters succeeded where the Bush administration failed: They have punished President Jacques Chirac and his center-right government.” In fact, they gave the once-discredited Socialist Party control over 20 of the country’s 21 regional administrations — and defeated every one of the 19 Chirac Cabinet ministers running for local office. In the face of results like this, some French governments of the past have instituted “cohabitation,” under which the opposition is invited into the government in some sort of partnership. However, Chirac declined to do this, opting instead for a minor reshuffling of his cabinet. He did not even replace his unpopular Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, although many expect him to do so before the year is over.
This Washington Post report by correspondent Keith Richburg has about the right line on the cabinet reshuffling. Chirac’s moves had less to do with appeasing voters or improving the government than with party succession issues. The key players are Nicolas Sarkozy and Dominique de Villepin (and, of course, Chirac). Sarkozy has been the interior minister, or “top cop,” and has gained popularity by actually fighting crime and terrorism, supporting the police, attempting to combat illegal immigration, while at the same time attempting to better absorb and integrate France’s large immigrant population. Meanwhile, de Villepin, as foreign minister, has been trying to undermine American policy with respect to Iraq, and to curb the American “hyper-power” generally. He is also the protege of Chirac, who some say regards de Villepin like a son.
In the reshuffled government, Sarkozy becomes the finance minister. This is essentially mission impossible, given France’s finances. Thus, it seems likely that Chirac has made this move in order to derail his and de Villepin’s popular rival. For similar reasons, de Villepin gets Sarkozy’s interior portfolio with the hope that he can cash in on Sarkozy’s successes. To an outsider, de Villepin — who comes across as part gigolo, part poet — seems like an unlikely “top cop,” but we must remember that we’re talking about France.
Unfortunately, for that reason, the U.S. is looking at essentially a lose-lose situation (as are the French). If Chirac’s government falls, we get the Socialists. If it doesn’t, we get Chirac, with de Villepin as his probable Prime Minister. This is the reverse of the situation in Great Britian which, in simplistic terms, is essentially win-win for the U.S. — either Tony Blair or the Conservative Party. Spain, on the other hand, represented a win or lose situation, and we lost.