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The Times May 11, 2006
The de Villepin and Chirac scandals may strengthen the Left
However exciting British politics may have been of late, it pales into insignificance when compared with events unfolding across the Channel. Associates of President Chirac were obliged yesterday to deny that, as Mayor of Paris, he had opened a bank account in Japan in 1992 which contained a princely 300 million francs.
Even by the standards of French politics, this charge sounds fantastic. It is a measure of the present atmosphere, which, in a rare intervention, the Japanophiliac M Chirac denounced as a “dictatorship of rumour”, that such suggestions can be made and often believed. The President, though, has only himself to blame. He has become inextricably linked to the Clearstream affair that has engulfed Dominique de Villepin, his Prime Minister.
Briefly stated, a list of individuals who had supposedly received big kickbacks from the sale of French frigates to Taiwan in 1991 fell into the hands of the head of the secret service. The allegations have since been shown to be completely bogus, but an investigation was begun.
In January 2004, allegedly on the orders of M Chirac, M de Villepin, the Foreign Minister at the time, insisted that the inquiry be extended to focus on a politician, Nicolas Sarkozy, the President’s main centre-right foe and a potential rival to M de Villepin himself in the presidential election to take place next year. This smells like an outrageous strategy to smear M Sarkozy.
M Chirac has pledged his support to M de Villepin and insisted that he will not seek his resignation. As his recent volte-face on an essential but unpopular reform of French employment law illustrates, nonetheless, it is not worth trying to deposit a Chirac promise at any bank. If M de Villepin stays it will be because M Chirac can find no alternative bar M Sarkozy, who might take extreme pleasure in turning down the chance to serve the President. The net effect of all this has been to demolish what prospect the Prime Minister had of challenging M Sarkozy for the Centre Right’s presidential nomination.
That does not necessarily make M Sarkozy the real winner in this drama. The admittedly familiar spectacle of leading centre-right figures forming a circular firing squad is not destined to impress French electors. This scandal may instead boost the standing of Ségolène Royal, a former Minister for Education and then Families, and the likely Socialist Party champion next year.
Mme Royal is charismatic but unknown and untested. She is energetic and formidable at personal engagement, which is an advance on the skills of leading male politicians. She lavished sincere praise on Tony Blair in a newspaper interview (which is more than certain members of his Cabinet have done) and warned her colleagues not to reverse recent pension reforms or the privatisation of Gaz de France. She opposes gay marriage and adoption (hope there for Ruth Kelly). In other respects, she seems an orthodox member of an unreconstructed party. It would speak volumes about M Chirac’s tainted legacy if she were to replace him.