Why de Villepin Still Has His Job

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Is French Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin's surprising decision to remain in office, after student protests effectively killed his and President Jacques Chirac's youth labor law, part of a plot to destroy his chief political rival's presidential aspirations? That's at least one of the more sinister theories floating around Paris these days as observers try to make sense of why de Villepin, a man well known for his high self-regard, has chosen not to resign after his own presidential ambitions were all but quashed by one of the most humiliating public defeats in recent history.

By retaining his prime minister's job, the thinking goes, de Villepin could rally the considerable number of reform-minded conservatives who backed his controversial youth labor law, and were disgusted to see Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy break government ranks and initiate yet another governmental capitulation. "The Chirac-de Villepin team may not have a chance to beat Sarkozy in the presidential race, but they could still deny him the Elysee," warns Yves Derai, who co-authored a prescient de Villepin biography last October titled The Man Who Loved Himself Too Much. "Don't underestimate the hatred the two men have for Sarkozy, and vice-versa. They are capable of working to help the left win to thwart Sarkozy's presidential dreams." After all, should de Villepin actually be playing the Machiavellian game of defeating Sarkozy, a leftist victory next year would still leave Villepin, 53, plenty of time to mount an Elysee run of his own in 2012.

When de Villepin's mentor Chirac announced last week the withdrawal of the controversial labor reform that would have made it easier for businesses fire younger workers, many observers expected his favorite in next year's presidential race to resign in a pique of fury and disdain. Instead, de Villepin depicted the reversal of his law as something he'd agreed to in the national interest, while explaining its demise as a result only of his inability to sell it effectively to the concerned French public. As Derai puts it, "resigning would have accorded him a certain nobility in defeat — the man who went down fighting for his principles."

But even apart from the Sarkozy theory, there are any number of reasons de Villepin may have decided not to fight. It may be as simple as the stubborn pride of the man who provoked the massive protests in the first place, and whom many Americans came to loathe as the perma-tanned mocker at the U.N. of U.S. efforts to launch the Iraq war. Or, as government insiders claim, de Villepin may have come under considerable pressure from his conservative backers — foremost among them Chirac — to remain in place and, in essence, take one for the team. With nothing left to lose, this logic runs, de Villepin should stay in office and spare any would-be replacement from having to sacrifice his or her career to a solid year of public hostility.

Finally, Chirac's onetime chief campaign strategist knows better than most how quickly events and fortunes can turn. "A year is a very long time, lots of things can happen," says an official with the Union for a Popular Movement, the party that de Villepin belongs to and Sarkozy presides over. "One external crisis thrust upon us that de Villepin successfully navigates could turn everything around. I wouldn't bet on it, but de Villepin has nothing to lose if he does."

There is, of course, one other, less cynical explanation. No matter how out of character it may seem for de Villepin, perhaps his decision to stay on and take his licks is just the principled, selfless act of a dedicated public servant. Not surprisingly the French, of all people, don't put too much stock in such a good-natured view of the world.