French President Jacques Chirac has named Dominique de Villepin as prime minister following the government defeat in Sunday’s vote on the European Union Constitution. We speak with journalist Doug Ireland who says, "[Villepin] is a very traditional defender of French national interests and indeed prerogatives in its former colonial empire." [includes rush transcript]
French President Jacques Chirac has named Dominique de Villepin as prime minister following the government defeat in Sunday’s vote on the European Union Constitution.
Villepin is the former interior and foreign minister and a close ally of Chirac. In the run-up to to the US invasion of Iraq, Villepin led France’s opposition to the war. He replaces Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who tendered his resignation minutes earlier.
On Sunday, French voters decisively rejected ratification of the new European constitution, plunging Chirac’s government into chaos and casting uncertainty on the future of Europe’s integration drive. The "non" vote was 55% and the turnout was around 70%. France, a founding member of the European Union, is the first country to reject the constitution which can only take affect if all 25 member states ratify it. On Wednesday, the Netherlands holds a non-binding referendum on the constitution and it is widely expected that it will be rejected by voters in that country as well. Meanwhile, British Prime Minister Tony Blair hinted that he may postpone the referendum planned for next year in Britain calling for a "time of reflection" on the text.
- Doug Ireland, a longtime journalist and who lived in France for a decade writing on European politics and culture. He has been a columnist for The Nation magazine, Village Voice, the New York Observer and the Paris daily Liberation. He is also a contributing editor of POZ, the monthly for the HIV-positive community.
Read Doug Ireland’s blog.
AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined on the telephone from New York by Doug Ireland, who spends half his time in France, long-time journalist, has lived also in France for a decade writing on European politics and culture. Welcome to Democracy Now!, Doug.
DOUG IRELAND: Good morning.
AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s start off by you talking about this massive defeat for the European Union constitution and for the French government.
DOUG IRELAND: The Sunday victory of the "no" against the European constitution, Amy, was a political revolt that was a slap in the face to the political elites of France, left, right and center. The leaders of all of the major political formations in France put their reputations on the line and campaigned very hard for a yes vote on the constitution. The rejection of the constitution, however, was not a nationalist rejection. It was an economic rejection, because the French electorate by ten points said no to this constitution because it was perceived as creating a Europe that would be a playground for the multinational corporations. France is in the middle of an economic crisis, 10% unemployment. Factories are being moved from France to low-wage Eastern European countries, a phenomenon the French call delocalization. The anguish and fear of loss of jobs grips a great part of the French employee classes, and the exit polls showed very clearly that the victory of the "no" was driven by economic concerns. Two-thirds of salaried employees voted against the constitution and three-quarters of the working class voted against the constitution. That is why this morning’s choice of Dominique de Villepin as the new French prime minister is rather astonishing as a response to this political — economically motivated political revolt.
AMY GOODMAN: Why is that?
DOUG IRELAND: Because de Villepin has no domestic experience to speak of except for his last 18 months as interior minister. He is an aristocrat who has spent most of his life in the foreign service. He has never been elected to anything, so he has very little real sense of the daily preoccupations of the French in their daily lives, especially their social and economic preoccupations. He’s also someone who has got a political tin ear. It was de Villepin, who when he was the secretary general of the Elysee Palace, meaning he was Chirac’s presidential chief of staff, it was de Villepin who was the architect of the dissolution of the legislature and parliament in 1997, which — to provoke early parliamentary elections. Chirac’s conservative coalition lost those elections disastrously. And they led to the victory of the socialist-led coalition and five years of the socialist, Lionel Jospin, as prime minister. De Villepin is therefore widely detested by the members of Chirac’s own Parliamentary Party as the man responsible for that electoral disaster. In fact, Le Figaro yesterday quoted one of the leaders of Chirac’s party in parliament as saying that not a single member of the presidential majority supported the choice of de Villepin as prime minister, probably a slight exaggeration, but not by much. So, you take a man who has had no experience in — really, in domestic policy and none in economic policy, a man who has got a political tin ear, who is not a politician, as your response to an economically-motivated political result, it shows that Chirac is really not that skilled in the way he’s responding to Sunday’s vote.
In addition, by the way, there’s a fascinating fact about de Villepin, which is not known in America. De Villepin is very fond of wiretaps and secret police reports. This was revealed by the news weekly L’Express back in April, which reported that when de Villepin was foreign minister many of the staff of the Quai d’Orsay, where the foreign ministry is headquartered, said that they were convinced that their telephones were tapped on orders from de Villepin. When he became interior minister 18 months ago, the first thing he said was, I want to know everything the journalists are saying. And he would spend hours poring over the daily confidential reports from the Renseignements Generaux, the R.G., which is the secret political police in France, which spies not only on the political life of the country, but on the private lives of well-known personalities, politicians and journalists.
He is a very — described as a very brutal man in his operational style. All in all, I think it’s a strange choice, but if you know Jacques Chirac, it’s understandable because more than anything else, Chirac hates Nicolas Sarkozy, the man who has been preparing a presidential campaign against Chirac for the last two years. Sarkozy got himself elected as the chairman of Chirac’s party. He’s overwhelmingly popular with the party rank and file. He has been leading in the public opinion polls for the presidential elections in France to be held in two years, and beats Chirac regularly as the choice of the right in those polls. There’s been bad blood between the two men ever since Sarkozy had been the boyfriend for a while of Chirac’s daughter. And this has deepened into a poisonous political relationship between the two men. And Chirac hates Sarkozy. And he saw de Villepin as the only figure that he had in his stable capable, perhaps, of beating Sarkozy as the choice of the right for president in 2007.
AMY GOODMAN: It’s interesting — it’s interesting, you should talk about de Villepin loving wiretaps, because I think the way he is most known here in this country is for his fierce opposition to the invasion and standing up to President Bush at the United Nations, and of course, we know about the wiretapping or the spying on of the U.N. Security Council members at the time of the lead-up to various votes and discussions about the invasion.
DOUG IRELAND: Well, it’s important to remember that Jacques Chirac’s opposition to the war in Iraq was not ideological. It was opportunistic. The French people overwhelmingly, right and left, 80% opposed the invasion of Iraq. Chirac is an old opportunist, sensed very well, had his finger in the wind, understood that the Iraq war was going to be terribly unpopular in his country, and therefore, decided to take a position against it. And de Villepin, as his liegeman and as foreign minister became the spokesman for that politics. But it would be really quite wrong of American progressives to see in de Villepin some sort of political hero for carrying out that French policy decided upon by Chirac. It doesn’t mean in any moment any deep opposition to imperial politics. Indeed, de Villepin, one of his great specialties, is Africa. He was the head of the foreign ministry’s African bureau for a number of years. And, of course, in those years, has been a long French tradition under both governments of left and right, France has exercised enormous power and sway over its now independent former colonies in Africa. So, this is not an anti-imperialist who has been named as prime minister of France. He’s a very traditional defender of French national interests and indeed prerogatives in its former colonial empire.
AMY GOODMAN: And tomorrow the Dutch are expected to vote down the European constitution.
DOUG IRELAND: Oh, indeed. There’s no — there’s very little doubt about it. The last poll has — yesterday at 60% no in the Netherlands. And that’s just the final nail in the coffin of this absolutely dreadful, highly conservative European constitution. You know, there’s a myth going around that this constitution would have made Europe stronger. I don’t read it that way at all. For me, this was a constitution for a weaker Europe, particularly vis-a-vis Washington. In the new European constitution which has now been rejected by France, it is written in concrete into that constitution that European Union security policy is subordinated to NATO. Moreover, for the European Union to take a position like the position that France and Germany took against the Iraq war, you would have to have unanimity. It means that just as the United States bought off a block of largely Eastern European countries during the Iraq war to support the invasion, Washington did again block the European Union from taking a position even with its strengthened president the new constitution provided for and the strengthened foreign minister. It could block the Union from taking any position in opposition to American ventures abroad rather easily. Moreover, this constitution could never have been amended, except by unanimity, which means that all of the multinational corporations would have to do is buy off some corrupt little country like Albania to block any change in the constitution’s infamous Chapter III, which institutionalizes the most savage kind of free market economics. It creates a host of policy decisions leading to privatization and undermines the social safety net in the advanced European western countries.
AMY GOODMAN: Doug Ireland, I want to thank you very much for being with us, long-time journalist, has lived in France for a decade writing on European politics and culture. Your website for people to follow your blog on this issue?
DOUG IRELAND: Yes. If they just go to Google and type in the word "direland," my blog will come right up, and they will be able to read this morning about de Villepin the Wiretapper.
AMY GOODMAN: Doug Ireland, thanks for joining us, a columnist for years for The Nation, The Village Voice, The New Observer, and the Paris daily, Liberation, and also a contributing editor of POZ, the monthly HIV+ community magazine.