The prospect of Sarkozy replacing Villepin as French Prime Minister has apparently been given a significant boost today, with a close aide of Sarkozy saying his boss could accept such an offer, provided he is allowed to carry out his (and not Chirac’s) political agenda.
Now, maybe this won’t come to pass (and I’ll argue below that it probably won’t). But it is worth recalling some recent history to show how extraordinary such a move would be.
It is not just that Chirac had considered Sarkozy a traitor since he chose to support the presidential bid of (then Prime minister) Edouard Balladur in the presidential elections of 1995. It is also that Chirac has done everything in his power to impede Sarkozy’s rise to power since 2002. In 2004, Chirac battled behind the scenes to try to foil the takeover of his own UMP party by Sarkozy, then the popular Minister of the Interior. When that didn’t work, he ordered him to leave the government, on the theory that having the head of the main party of the parliamentary majority in the cabinet would sap the authority of the Prime Minister (conveniently forgetting that Alain JuppÃ©, a long-time Chirac protÃ©gÃ©, was at the same time president of the RPR and Foreign Minister from November 1994 to May 1995).
That theory did last less than a year, since Sarko was back in the government after the failed referendum on the EU constitution in late May 2005. But Chirac ignored the calls of his parliamentary majority to name Sarko Prime Minister and went for Villepin instead, with the hope of making the latter a rival to the former for the next presidential elections. Asking now Sarko to replace Villepin would then be tantamount to a declaration of surrender on Chirac’s part.
So why would Chirac even considering handing the keys of the government to Sarkozy? Partly because keeping Villepin in Matignon is looking increasingly like political suicide: the Prime Minister’s authority has been badly damaged by the climb-down over the CPE, he is hovering around 25% approval in the latest polls and is now embroiled in a murky judicial affair that gets more embarrassing by the day. In this kind of situation, political survival always comes before personal hatred.
But I suspect Chirac might also have more Machiavellian thoughts in mind, namely the fact that being Prime Minister could prove a liability for Sarkozy in the 2007 presidential elections. This idea is corroborated by historical precedents: political commentators are fond of talking about the “malÃ©diction de Matignon” since no sitting Prime minister has ever managed to be elected President since the creation of the Fifth Republic in 1958. Jacques Chaban-Delmas was trounced by ValÃ©ry Giscard d’Estaing in 1974. Jacques Chirac himself was humiliated by FranÃ§ois Mitterrand in 1988. Edouard Balladur was riding high in the polls in early 1995, before being nosed out by Chirac on the presidential finishing line. And Chirac avenged himself for his 1988 defeat by borrowing from the Mitterrand playbook to outmaneuver his socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.
This “curse” should evidently be taken with a grain of salt: a good case can be made that, for instance, Giscard or Chirac were just shrewder politicians than Chaban or Balladur. But it reflects a broader truth: just as it is extremely difficult for a sitting American senator to be elected President (since you’ve left a trail of hundreds of votes that your opponent is sure to oppo-research to death), being Prime Minister is arguably the worst position from which to launch a presidential bid in France. This has a lot to do with our decidedly peculiar institutions, in which the Prime minister is tasked with the exhausting day-to-day running of the government while the President takes all the big decisions but concentrates on lofty speeches and crowd-pleasing international policy. The PM is thus first in line to incur the wrath of the electorate when things go bad – and things go bad quite often in France.
With that in mind, Sarkozy’s draconian conditions to accept the job start to make a lot a sense. What Sarkozystes had dread for months is a scenario in which Chirac solemnly asks Sarkozy to become Prime Minister, since turning down the offer could look as if the Interior Minister just doesn’t give a damn about the fate of the nation. What’s more, Sarkozy has said he would quit the government next winter in order to devote himself to his presidential campaign (and to create a distance between his candidacy and an unpopular government). Such an early exit would be inconceivable if he is the sitting Prime minister.
Laying out conditions in advance thus makes a refusal much easier to defend before the court of public opinion. And I presume that Sarko’s inner circle think that Chirac would not be crazy or daring enough to forfeit the better part of his power as President just to lure his rival in Matignon. But, then again, we’re talking about Chirac…