Sarkozy's (anti-immigrant, anti-European, anti-gay) crony

The President is keen to reach out to the right. But is Philippe de Villiers a step too far? John Lichfield reports

France's anything-but-red baron, Philippe de Villiers, has described President Nicolas Sarkozy as an "imposter", "a liar" and a "Duracell bunny". That was in the distant, political past – a couple of months ago.

Next month Viscount de Villiers – a virulently anti-European, anti-immigrant, anti-gay populist and Catholic fundamentalist – will become the latest addition to President Sarkozy's political menagerie, stretching from the soft, well-meaning left to the borders of the far-right.

Mr de Villiers, or Vicomte Philippe Le Jolis de Villiers de Saintignon, has let it be known that he expects to sign up in September for Mr Sarkozy's "electoral coordinating committee" for the regional elections next year and, implicitly, for the next presidential election in 2012.

The president's tactical motives in bringing Mr De Villiers, 60, into his broad political coalition are clear enough. With more than half his five-year term still to go, Mr Sarkozy is mocking the divided French left by tightening his effortless control over the right and centre. By allying himself with the Catholic conservative De Villiers, the twice-divorced, half-foreign, non-church-going president is reassuring the many traditionalist, haut-bourgeois voters who support him but mistrust him.

Ideologically, however, the new alliance is bizarre and, to some of the president's supporters, disturbing.

Mr Sarkozy likes to present himself as a pragmatic pro-European, the saviour of the Lisbon treaty on EU reform and a man determined to break down social and racial barriers. Mr De Villiers is a Europhobe, the man who coined the phrase "Polish plumber" to describe the alleged threat to France from the Lisbon treaty and European enlargement.

Although avoiding (just) the outright racial fear-mongering of Jean-Marie Le Pen, Mr de Villiers often makes exaggerated claims about the "islamisation" of France. He has accused Islam, not just radical Islam, of being engaged in a de facto "war" with the West. ("Islam is the breeding ground of radical Islam and radical Islam is the breeding ground of terrorism.")

He is also a vituperative campaigner for "family values" and against gay rights. France's successful civil partnership law or PACS which allows gay partners – and others – to make formal commitments to one another, is, he says, a "return to barbarism".

For 28 years, Mr de Villiers has manoeuvred on the fringes of the traditional right without ever creating a personal following of more than 4 or 5 per cent of the electorate.

But Mr de Villiers has justified his decision to join forces with Mr Sarkozy as the best way to move his ideas from the margins of French politics into the heart of government. There are rumours, not yet denied by the Elysée Palace, that President Sarkozy may be considering a junior ministerial role for Mr de Villiers.

So far President Sarkozy has handled his policy of "ouverture" to politicians of the moderate left and centre reasonably well. There are fears, both inside and outside the government, that reaching out to Mr de Villiers may be a bridge too far.

The league against racism and anti-Semitism, Licra, has protested that the president's new alliance amounts to a "back-dated justification" of "intolerable racist remarks" made by Mr de Villiers in the past. To keep its new ally happy, the league predicts, Mr Sarkozy's own party, the Union Pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), will have to push its own rhetoric and policies "to the right or even to the far right".

Philippe de Villiers descends from the Orléans branch of the French royal family. In the early 1960s, his father, Jacques de Villiers, was linked to the OAS, the right-wing terrorist movement which campaigned to keep Algeria part of France and tried to assassinate President Charles de Gaulle.

The family comes from the Vendée, the département just south of Brittany which revolted against the French Revolution and remains fiercely catholic-conservative. As a young man, Mr Philippe de Villiers was a senior civil servant and then an entrepreneur, setting up radio stations and – in 1977 – a live spectacle arena and theme park at Puy du Fou in the Vendée, which was extremely successful. The shows are usually dedicated to France's glorious, royalist, conservative, pre-revolutionary – and pre-democratic – past.

After flirting with the mainstream right for a decade, he created his own political party, the Mouvement pour la France (MPF) in 1991. The high points of his political career (to date) were, 4.7 per cent of the vote in the first round of the 1995 presidential election and, jointly with Charles Pasqua, 13 per cent in the 1999 European elections, defeating a more moderate right list led by Mr Sarkozy.

Mr de Villiers has been a Euro MP on and off ever since and has often been named as the least active, and one of the most absent, members of the European assembly.

Mr De Villiers campaigns for low taxes, no immigration, no mosque-building, no gay rights and for policies to encourage and reinforce the traditional family. His symbolic status as an anti-gay family man, with seven children, has been damaged in circumstances which remain somewhat opaque. His son Laurent, 24, has accused his older brother, Guillaume, 29, of having repeatedly raped him when he was a child. The accusation was withdrawn last year and then renewed in January. A legal investigation is under way. Mr De Villiers claims Laurent has been "manipulated" to damage his career.

Sarkozy supporters on the moderate left and even on the right have been puzzled and angered by his decision to reach out to Mr De Villiers. Tactically, the viscount's support could give the president two to three per cent extra votes in the first round in 2012 – enough to give Mr Sarkozy unstoppable momentum into the second round. But his presence in the president's broad coalition may be a damaging source of incoherence and embarrassment. With the left still scattered and leaderless, why bother?

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Sport
footballHe started just four months ago
News
Nigel Farage celebrates with a pint after early local election results in the Hoy and Helmet pub in South Benfleet in Essex
peopleHe has shaped British politics 'for good or ill'
News
One father who couldn't get One Direction tickets for his daughters phoned in a fake bomb threat and served eight months in a federal prison
people... (and one very unlucky giraffe)
Arts and Entertainment
Sink the Pink's 2013 New Year's Eve party
musicFour of Britain's top DJs give their verdict on how to party into 2015
PROMOTED VIDEO
ebooks
ebooksA year of political gossip, levity and intrigue from the sharpest pen in Westminster
Arts and Entertainment
(L-R) Amanda Peet as Tina Morris, Melanie Lynskey as Michelle Pierson, Abby Ryder Fortson as Sophie Pierson, Mark Duplass as Brett Pierson and Steve Zissis as Alex Pappas in Togetherness
TV First US networks like HBO shook up drama - now it's comedy's turn
News
i100
Travel
Pool with a view: the mMarina Bay Sands in Singapore
travel From Haiti and Alaska to Namibia and Iceland
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant- NY- Investment Bank

Not specified: Selby Jennings: VP/SVP Credit Quant Top tier investment bank i...

Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

£40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

£25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

Day In a Page

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that? The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year

Aren’t you glad you didn’t say that?

The worst wince-and-look-away quotes of the year
Hollande's vanity project is on a high-speed track to the middle of nowhere

Vanity project on a high-speed track to nowhere

France’s TGV network has become mired in controversy
Sports Quiz of the Year

Sports Quiz of the Year

So, how closely were you paying attention during 2014?
Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry, his love of 'Bargain Hunt', and life as a llama farmer

Alexander Armstrong on insulting Mary Berry and his love of 'Bargain Hunt'

From Armstrong and Miller to Pointless
Sanchez helps Gunners hold on after Giroud's moment of madness

Sanchez helps Gunners hold on

Olivier Giroud's moment of madness nearly costs them
A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

Christmas without hope

Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

The 'Black Museum'

After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

Chilly Christmas

Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

Homeless Veterans appeal

In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

Ed Balls interview

'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
He's behind you, dude!

US stars in UK panto

From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect