De Villepin waxes lyrical about world peace, seagulls and sharks

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"Seagull philosophy", once the exclusive domain of the great French footballer-thinker, Eric Cantona, has been given a sophisticated new meaning by France's poet-politician, Dominique de Villepin.

"Seagull philosophy", once the exclusive domain of the great French footballer-thinker, Eric Cantona, has been given a sophisticated new meaning by France's poet-politician, Dominique de Villepin.

In a book of exquisitely high-flown rhetoric published yesterday, M. de Villepin - formerly foreign minister, now Interior Minister - justifies French opposition to the Iraq war as the model for a brave, new "fraternal" world, rooted partly in French ideas and values.

His book, Le Requin et La Mouette (The Shark and The Seagull) says global calamity can still be avoided but only if the world's peoples and religions espouse respect for the differences which lie at the heart of the French republic and the European Union.

Cantona once famously and mysteriously said: "Seagulls follow the trawler because they expect sardines to be thrown into the sea." The "seagulls" on that occasion were journalists.

In M. de Villepin's eloquent (often grandiloquent) book, the "shark" is plainly intended to represent George Bush's United States, "a symbol of power, strength and the refusal to be halted by the complexity of the world ... cutting through the sea and pouncing on its prey." The "seagull" symbolises the more subtle and tolerant values and methods of Europe and, especially, France. "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." And so on, for 260 pages.

M. de Villepin says the shark and the seagull do not fight, because they exist in different spheres. Neither creature triumphs over the other. The future of the world, he argues, demands a "reconciliation" of the values of seagulls and sharks. It is plain from his lyrical language, however, that M. de Villepin is mainly on the side of the seagulls.

During France's diplomatic rearguard action against the US-led invasion of Iraq last year, M. de Villepin's eloquence and foppish good-looks outraged many American politicians and journalists and captured female hearts all over the world. Alongside President Jacques Chirac, he was the main architect of France's insistence that the US-British invasion was unjustified and that global security depended on acceptance of a "multi-polar" world - a world not dominated by American, or Western, preoccupations or values.

Eighteen months later, France's arguments in the UN and elsewhere look sounder, factually and rationally, than many of the explanations deployed by the US and Britain for going to war. Many readers might turn to M. de Villepin's book in the hope of finding an insider's account of that painful, fascinating period.

They would mostly be disappointed. The names Bush and Powell hardly appear in the book. The names Blair and Straw do not appear at all. M. de Villepin, 50, moves quite rapidly over the reasons why France threatened to veto a resolution giving specific UN Security Council authorisation for an invasion of Iraq.

Le Requin et La Mouette, published yesterday by Plon-Albin Michel (€ 19) is not M. de Villepin's first book. He is a published poet and historian, with a particular interest in the Emperor Napoleon.

He is by background a bureaucrat and long-time protégé of President Chirac. Although he has never stood for office, many believe that he is being groomed by M. Chirac as his possible successor in the Elysée Palace - an alternative to the rising force in French politics, the Finance Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy.

M. de Villepin's new book is therefore intended partly to present him as, something acceptable in France, a man with a vision. Most of the book is a political-philosophical essay, using as its starting-point a 1946 poem by the French writer, René Char, Le Requin et la Mouette. M. de Villepin argues that fear of global religious war, of environmental catastrophe and economic subjection to multinational companies is understandable but unjustified.

The world must learn to respect differences, the love of freedom and also equality and social solidarity which, he says, hold together the French republic and also the European Union. The American model, rooted in freedom but lack of solidarity and a simple-minded rejection of other cultures, is inadequate, he implies. What the world needs, he says, is la fraternité, which he defines as a kind of sinuous, pragmatic recognition of everyone's right to be different, while working together. The best paradigms that the world could adopt, he says, are those of Paris and Brussels, and France and the EU should not be afraid of becoming more evangelical and selling their values to the world. "With a restless eye, with an open soul, let us embrace the contours of diversity."

But M. de Villepin offers little practical advice on how Osama bin Laden, Donald Rumsfeld and Vladimir Putin - to name but three - can be encouraged to embrace the contours of diversity together.

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