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.