Dominique de Villepin Enters Stage Right and Adds to Sarkozy’s Woes

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Fred Dufour / AFP / Getty Images

France's former Prime minister Dominique de Villepin addresses to journalists at the Paris courthouse on September 14, 2011, after the appeal hearing of the so-called "Clearstream case".

French President Nicolas Sarkozy has yet to officially declare his imminent re-election campaign, but that hasn’t kept a teeming field of rivals from launching their own bids for the Elysée. That pack of presidential hopefuls increased to 14 Sunday evening, when former conservative prime minister and Sarkozy archenemy Dominique de Villepin announced his entry into the race. But while current polls show flamboyant de Villepin projected to win just 1% of the vote, his decision to run clearly troubles Sarkozy allies, who fear the proliferation of right-wing contenders risks dangerously splitting the conservative vote in first-round balloting—and possibly making Sarkozy the first sitting president in recent history to fail to qualify for the run-off phase of presidential elections.

Indeed, as Socialist Party candidate François Hollande continues to lead most projected results by a large margin, the proliferation of mainstream conservative competitors has some Sarkozy backers fearing a “reverse April 21.” That was the date in 2002 when high abstention and an over-abundance of leftist candidates atomized the progressive vote and allowed extreme-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen to qualify for the presidential run-off ahead of his nearest Socialist competitor. It was a coup that leaves many people in France shamed to this day. Risk of that again—this time at the mainstream right’s expense—is even greater due to the considerable popularity of Le Pen’s daughter, Marine, who is now filling her father’s shoes as the far-right’s presidential candidate for the first time.

De Villepin’s entry in the race brings the tally of declared right-wing and center-right candidates to five—nearly the same as leftist competitors who’ve launched bids. So why the worry among Sarkozy supporters in particular? First, unlike most leftists rivaling Socialist Hollande from marginal or extremist parties, the field of conservatives is made up of  strictly mainstream politicians—most of whom who not only occupy similar positions as Sarkozy, but were once members of his Union for a Popular Majority party, or even officials in his cabinet. Common (if not identical) turf will be fiercely fought over, creating a muddy field that Sarkozy will further muddy when he declares his own candidacy in early 2012. Few fights get quite as nasty as battles between fellow-travelers seeking the same political crown.

Second, de Villepin is likely to be a particularly damaging conservative rival to Sarkozy, both politically and personally. The tall, elegant, perma-tanned de Villepin shares the social concerns and market wariness of his Gaullist mentor and fellow Sarkozy-hater, former President Jacques Chirac. As such, de Villepin has already displayed his readiness to attack Sarkozy’s liberal economic policies, his failures in handling the current debt crisis, and what critics say is Sarkozy’s loyalty to the interests of the rich and powerful and penchant to impose harsh austerity measures on less affluent French citizens. Meantime, de Villepin will also seek to deliver Sarkozy some personal pay-back for the notorious Clearstream affair that nearly ended the former premier’s political career. In fact, some Sarkozy supporters reacted to de Villepin’s Sunday night announcement as a no-hope bid designed only to settle scores by complicating the president’s looming re-election run.

“Dominique de Villepin is a man on his own, without finances and without a political movement,” mocked Nadine Morano, a junior minister for family affairs in Sarkozy’s cabinet, and one of his sharpest-tongue supporters. “Public interest should come before personal ambition…(and) it’s the public interest of France (for conservatives) to form a bloc around the president.”

Look to de Villepin to do just the opposite. While his current 1% level of support in polls may provoke derision from Sarkozy’s camp, some analysts think he could recapture or even surpass approval highs of 9% earlier this year. To do so, the histrionic-prone de Villepin will seek to reproduce the dramatics that earned him so much respect in France (and enmity in America) when, as Foreign Minister, he opposed the U.S. push for war against Iraq before the United Nations in 2003. By turns diplomat and drama queen, politician and poseur, de Villepin is a figure few people fail to notice one way or another.

Does that give de Villepin a legitimate shot to become president? No—partially because he’s never appealed to voters for an elected office before, and in part because the supercilious de Villepin generates as much voter rejection as respect. Yet even only limited electoral success by de Villepin—capturing a portion of his former support among mainstream conservatives—could be enough to atomize the traditional right vote, prevent Sarkozy from earning a spot in the run-off round of balloting, and create a “reverse April 21” by allowing extreme-right leader Marine Le Pen to move on into the final with Hollande.

Marine Le Pen herself already enjoys advantages her father Jean-Marie didn’t have in 2002, when he stunned France and the world by qualifying for the final with Chirac ahead of out-going Socialist premier Lionel Jospin. Not only is the mainstream conservative field already as divided as the leftists were in 2002, but Marine Le Pen’s 29% approval rating is far above her father’s best score back then (scarcely 15%). Recent polls also indicate a huge majority of National Front voters reject any notion of rallying to Sarkozy’s campaign as they did in large numbers in 2007—despite Sarkozy’s efforts over the course of his presidency to court the extreme-right. That’s particularly bad news for Sarkozy as his campaign launch looms: his advisers had been planning to exploit Marine Le Pen’s rising popularity by staking out even more of her extreme-right ground to compensate for support lost in more moderate circles.

Recent history has shown each time Sarkozy has played to the extreme-right he’s produced the opposite reaction than what he hoped: a lift in Le Pen’s electoral fortunes and serious slump in his own. All of which explains why many mainstream conservatives, Sarkozy backers, and assorted pundits are very worried that the electoral table being set for 2012 will produce the same bitter result as in 2002, but with a leftist twist.