An unelected aristocrat who outraged America

Dominique de Villepin, French Prime Minister
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The Independent Online

When a country has just revolted against the Paris and Brussels "elite", what it clearly needs is a foppish, aristocratic, unelected poet-philosopher-bureaucrat as its new Prime Minister.

When a country has just revolted against the Paris and Brussels "elite", what it clearly needs is a foppish, aristocratic, unelected poet-philosopher-bureaucrat as its new Prime Minister.

This, at any rate, appears to have been the conclusion reached by President Jacques Chirac in appointing his acolyte and protégé, Dominique de Villepin, 51, to the second most important - and most uncomfortable - political position in France.

Such a choice might seem confrontational: a rude gesture from the French aristocratic-administrative classes to the sans culottes who dared to vote "non" in Sunday's referendum. Instead of "let them eat cake", "let them read poetry". In truth, President Chirac's elevation of M. de Villepin is probably intended, in time, to do quite the opposite - to play to the gallery of the anti-market, protectionist mood revealed by Sunday's result.

In his most recent book, The European Man (Plon, €17), M. de Villepin argues for a multi-speed Europe, with the old EEC of six - the "Euro-centre" - running a common economic policy at its core. This is very close to the ideas put forward by left-wing advocates of the "non".

M. de Villepin's rise to the Matignon palace, the seat of French prime ministers, has been meteoric. Seventeen years ago, he was the press officer in the French embassy in Washington.

In 1995, he became the director-general of President Chirac's staff at the Elysée Palace. His first front-rank political appointment was to the foreign ministry, just three years ago. He has been interior minister - the equivalent of home secretary - for 14 months.

M. de Villepin, who is married with three children, first became internationally known during France's diplomatic rearguard action against the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. His eloquence and good looks outraged many American politicians and journalists and conquered female hearts all over the world.

A year ago, M. de Villepin published Le Requin et La Mouette (the shark and the seagull) (Plon-Albin Michel, €19), a poetic hymn of praise to the social and political models offered to the world by France and the European Union. The "seagull" symbolises the subtle and tolerant values and methods of Europe and, especially, France, compared with the "shark", the United States.

"The seagull," M. de Villepin writes "is intoxicated by the sky. She turns, carried by the winds, with undulating wing, uttering from time to time her agonising peal of laughter. She watches, soars, comes closer, climbs, descends, turns suddenly. The straight line is rarely her course. She listens to the world."

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