Who is Dominique de Villepin?
Diplomacy at High Speed, Pour la France!
New York Times
Saturday 08 March 2003
ALGIERS -- When people talk about Dominique Galouzeau de Villepin, one image that springs to mind is that of a rabbit.
France's foreign minister is the Energizer bunny of diplomacy, a hyperactive force who sleeps no more than four and a half hours a night, enjoys waking up aides to discuss matters of state, runs marathons by day and writes poetry by night.
In the span of seven days in January, he was in Ivory Coast on a Saturday negotiating with warring factions, in Russia on Wednesday preparing President Vladimir V. Putin's state visit to France and in China on Thursday and South Korea on Friday to discuss the North Korean nuclear threat. Altogether, in his first 10 months in the job, he has traveled to 70 countries, including this trip accompanying President Jacques Chirac on his first state visit to Algeria.
By far his biggest impact on the world scene has been to emerge as the most vocal and relentless critic of the Bush administration's march to war against Iraq. As the architect of the French-German-Russian initiative this week to stop the United States from passing a war resolution at the United Nations -- unless international weapons inspections fail -- what Mr. de Villepin says and does have taken on a level of importance unheard of in trans-Atlantic diplomacy.
In the United States, his antiwar stance has unleashed an onslaught of Villepin-bashing, leading one columnist to call him "oleaginous," another to dub him "diplomacy lite."
Instead of giving him pause, the criticism gives him more energy. "All criticism is justified, all praise is unjustified," he said in an interview in his hotel suite here on Tuesday. "You grow with criticism; you are diminished with praise."
Much of the American criticism has come from within the Bush administration itself, where Mr. de Villepin has been vilified for daring to take on Secretary of State Colin L. Powell.
The two were said to have developed a warm relationship during negotiations last fall over a Security Council resolution demanding Iraqi cooperation with weapons inspections. But the relationship unraveled in January, after Mr. Powell felt betrayed by Mr. de Villepin when the French demanded a Security Council meeting on terrorism. In Mr. Powell's eyes, the event turned into a forum for Mr. de Villepin to slam Washington -- without any warning -- when he said that "nothing justifies envisaging military action" in Iraq.
In turn, according to French officials, Mr. de Villepin had believed Mr. Powell's assurances that the goal of American policy was not to overthrow President Saddam Hussein, but to disarm Iraq. When Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld contradicted that view, Mr. de Villepin also felt betrayed.
While Mr. de Villepin, 49, runs at high speed, it is sometimes difficult to know where he going. Even some of his closest aides call him brilliant or a bit crazy or both, and some diplomats have taken to calling him "Zorro."
Asked in a television interview in January about his perpetual motion, he replied: "It is crucial because the urgency is there. The urgency of great international questions. Terrorism. Proliferation. The rise of fundamentalism. The multiplicity of crises which have an impact on the lives of all of us. Today, you can't put a veil over your face."
If Mr. de Villepin has a vision, it is to revive the greatness of France -- a romantic view he articulated in his book, "The Hundred Days," the first published volume of a biography of Napoleon that tells the story of the emperor's return from exile, his triumphant march across France and his final defeat at Waterloo.
Describing Napoleon's philosophy as "Victory or death, but glory whatever happens," Mr. de Villepin added, "There is not a day that goes by without me feeling the imperious need to remember so as not to yield in the face of indifference, laughter or gibes" in order to "advance further in the name of a French ambition."
Other clues to his thinking and temperament can be found in his black leather Gucci briefcase, which he opened up during the interview. Out came a thick dossier tied with a ribbon that contained the manuscript of the second volume of the Napoleon biography, a folder containing a collection of his poems that he is re-editing, the manuscript of a friend's book for which he is writing an introduction, a dossier on painting and, only then, his official papers on Algeria.
"You see, I like to do many things at the same time," he said. "That's the only way to stay awake. At three in the morning you need to do something different than at two in the morning, because if not, you fall asleep."
Just the day before, Mr. de Villepin said, he had written a poem for the national security adviser, Maurice Gourdault-Montagne. Asked to read a poem, Mr. de Villepin read three.
As the most trusted aide of Mr. Chirac, who once described Mr. de Villepin as "a little like a son," he enjoys an independence that is unique in French politics.
A cover photo in the magazine Paris-Match two weeks ago stunned even veterans in the French political elite. There was Mr. Chirac, dressed in a suit, standing ever so slightly behind Mr. de Villepin, in shirt sleeves. "De Villepin looks like the dauphin, so intimate with the president that he doesn't even feel obliged to put on his jacket," said one longtime French diplomat.
Mr. de Villepin has his share of political enemies, who blame him for talking Mr. Chirac into dissolving the National Assembly in 1997 and calling early elections, a move that brought a Socialist-led government and ushered in five years of uneasy power-sharing with Mr. Chirac. The president has protected him ever since.
Indeed, members of Mr. Chirac's political circle who believe in the sanctity of the trans-Atlantic alliance complain bitterly that party operatives, the Defense Ministry and the armed forces have been pushed aside and that no one but the president and Mr. de Villepin are defining French foreign policy.
His proximity to the pinnacle of power has led to speculation that he has the ambition to be president one day. Few of those close to him believe his fierce denials. "I have never wanted to have a political career," he insisted. "I just aspire to serve."
Although Mr. de Villepin was little known outside of France before becoming foreign minister, he is the son of a powerful senator. Born in Morocco and raised abroad as a child, Mr. de Villepin served as the news media spokesman at the French Embassy in Washington during the Reagan administration, using the time to forge friendships with journalists, lobbyists and Congressional staffers.
After working as a key aide to Alain Jupp when Mr. Jupp was foreign minister and then prime minister, Mr. de Villepin was catapulted into the bureaucratic stratosphere when Mr. Chirac made him his top adviser in 1995. Perpetually tanned, the silver-haired, 6-foot-3 Mr. de Villepin was described recently by a commentator in the London newspaper The Observer as "a diplomatic pin-up."
He confesses to aides that he has little time to spend with his wife, Marie-Laure, and their three teenage children, Arthur, Marie and Victoire, his colleagues said.
His staff is run ragged by his work habits. After midnight on a flight home from Afghanistan last fall, he woke up his aides to have a meeting. "I like to kill one of them a day," he joked to one journalist.
In the interview, he insisted that his antiwar stance was motivated by love, not hatred, of the United States. "Really, we are so convinced that America is taking such risks for its future with this Iraq cause," he said. "To act like I do, you have to know how much I love America."
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