Feuding symbols of old and new France in court of King Jacques

Nicolas Sarkozy and Dominique de Villepin were once, supposedly, brothers in arms at the court of King Jacques.

Supposedly. In fact, the two men detested and envied each other from first sight. Although both were devoted Gaullists, and both sworn followers of Jacques Chirac, everything else separated them. They are caricature products of two allied but opposed worlds: the traditional, aloof French ruling class and the rising "new France" of smart lawyers, enterprise and the media. Dominique Marie François René Galouzeau de Villepin is a tall, elegant and patrician poet from a high bourgeois French family. Nicolas Paul Stéphane Sarkozy de Nagy-Bocsa is a short, nervy product of part-Jewish, part-Hungarian family with lots of "new money" friends but no fortune of its own.

Villepin is a classic product of the administrative-political class. He went to the École Nationale d'Administration finishing school, served as diplomat and attached himself to President Jacques Chirac as his chief of staff. He became foreign minister, interior minister and prime minister without ever standing for election.

Sarkozy trained as a lawyer and in his mid-20s started in politics at the grassroots (admittedly lush grassroots) as mayor of the wealthy Parisian suburb of Neuilly-sur-Seine. He never went to the elite grandes écoles or ENA. He rose with Chirac but split with him, twice.

Villepin calls Sarkozy le nain or "the dwarf". He regards him as a frenetic, Americophile threat to the French way of doing things and France's role as a crucial maverick balance to the overweening power of Washington. Sarkozy and others say privately that Villepin is "mad": a man with enormous pretensions but no political judgement; a Charles de Gaulle without the guts or talent; a man convinced that he incarnates "La France".

As the Chirac era drew to its close in 2003-4, Sarkozy propelled himself – brutally at times – to the forefront of likely centre-right successors. Chirac, still not convinced his own career was over, promoted and promoted and promoted Villepin to try to block Sarkozy's way. It was then that Villepin was accused of joining a plot to smear Sarkozy as financially corrupt. He has now been acquitted. When Sarkozy won the presidency in 2007, it seemed he had driven a stake through the heart of his detested fraternal rival.

Yesterday, though, Villepin awoke from the political dead.

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