Our parents' maxims stick with us all our lives. For me, there was my father's "Stay right and you'll never go wrong," when I was learning to drive. Later, when I was boxing in college, it was "When you send a punch, send it special delivery." But one that has proved especially useful over the years is, "Watch out for the little guys, they're the meanest."
That one, like other samples of homespun American wisdom, doesn't exist in the debonair language of Molière. If it had, maybe Dominique Marie François René Galouzeau de Villepin would today be contemplating a bright political future in his beloved France. Instead, he's now facing another long, torturous trial for slander that will likely prevent his ever holding elective office.
The inconvenient trial is just the latest episode in a très French duel to the political death between the 56-year-old Villepin and the 55-year-old Nicolas Sarkozy, officially President of the Republic. Serving as ministers in the same Jacques Chirac government some years ago only sharpened their antagonism. Ostensibly belonging to the same conservative party does nothing to lessen their enmity -- an unconcealed, bare-knuckled, feral hatred that provides solemn cover stories for news magazines and giggles for Paris dinner parties.
The protagonists in this Shakespearean drama could not be more different. Villepin, foppish, perennially tanned, languidly aristocratic, sees himself as the savior of an idealized, grandiose Old France. His basic antipathy to American values showed when he was a counselor in France's Washington embassy in 1988. And he it was who, as foreign minister in February 2003, sonorously lectured the U.S. from the noble podium of the United Nations against ridding the world of Saddam Hussein. His visibly high opinion of himself and disdain for "Anglo-Saxon" mores make him, as one French editorialist puts it so felicitously, "A De Gaulle in a Cerutti suit."
As such, he openly despises the pint-sized, pushy, parvenu Sarkozy, whom he contemptuously calls "the dwarf." A mere descendent of Hungarian-Jewish ancestors who wants France to abandon its high-flown pretensions and become more efficient and businesslike? You can easily imagine the patrician raised eyebrows, the disgusted little moue -- quelle horreur!
Sarkozy returns the loathing, in spades. For one thing, there are claims that Villepin may have spread rumors a few years ago about Sarkozy's private life, contributing to the collapse of his second marriage to Cécilia. And he's not about to forget Villepin's subsequent dig, "A man who can't keep his wife can't expect to keep France." Then there was the Clearstream affair.
That began in 2003, when they were both Chirac's ministers and jockeying for position as his favorite (Villepin won, a dubious distinction). A bogus list was circulated of prominent French political and business figures who allegedly had received kickbacks from French arms sales in the 1990s. The list, including Sarkozy's name, purported to be of individuals who stashed their dirty money in secret accounts at Clearstream International, a financial clearing house in Luxembourg.
An investigation showed the list was fake. But Villepin, then prime minister, declined to make that interesting fact public, keeping Sarkozy in the hot seat. When that became known, Sarkozy and dozens of other civil plaintiffs sued Villepin and four others for slander. The motive of the alleged defamation, Sarkozy contends, was Villepin's desire to derail his rival's quest for the presidency. It didn't work, but his election victory did nothing to cool Sarkozy's choler. "The guy who did this to me," he vowed with his usual elegant periphrasis, "is going to end up on a butcher's hook." The Paris prosecutor, Jean-Claude Marin, demanded Villepin be sentenced to 18 months in jail and a $60,000 fine.
After five years of investigation and a trial in which the judges heard 112 hours of evidence, the court issued a 326-page decision at the end of January clearing Villepin for lack of any evidence of dirty tricks. Curiously, nearly everybody else involved was found guilty, with three others, including an old pal of Villepin's, taking the rap. (A journalist who simply broke the story was cleared.) Sarkozy pocketed a token $1.35 in damages and plotted his next move, though his office issued a curt statement saying he would pursue the case no further.
Villepin, his sweeping silver coiffure more dashing than ever, pranced and preened. "I now turn to the future to serve the French people," he declared grandly, "and contribute, in a new spirit of unity, to the recovery of France." But he reckoned without the implacable, bulldog tenacity of the little guy.
French justice moves in mysterious ways its wonders to perform. How could it not in this case, with the prosecutor under the thumb of the justice minister, who owes fealty to the president? Villepin had hardly taken his victory lap when the Paris prosecutor, cheekily scolding the judges for finding Villepin innocent, announced he would appeal. "We haven't heard everything about this affair," Marin declared theatrically on a popular morning radio show. "There's still room for the truth to emerge." Some in this town swear on their mother's head they glimpsed the shadow of a diminutive, hyperactive figure pulling strings behind him.
The appeal will take at least another year. A year in which Villepin will be destabilized and hobbled in his attempt to split the Gaullist UMP party in his favor before the next presidential elections in 2012. As Le Monde editorialized, "The shady Clearstream affair will now keep on poisoning French political life."
The appeal, with its implication of vindictive obsession, could also poison Sarkozy's chances of re-election in 2012. Villepin has already begun building a political machine and making public appearances, posing as the victim of a vicious personal vendetta. It's a telling argument, especially with Sarkozy's numbers in the doldrums after a series of unpopular, tone-deaf gaffes like trying to put his 23-year-old son at the head of a large Paris business district. Unlikely to win -- initial polls give him around 10 percent of the vote in a presidential election -- Villepin as spoiler could siphon off enough conservative votes to unintentionally throw France back into the eager arms of the Socialist Party.