Chirac Shuffle May Spell Long-Term U.S. Bashing

Reeling from the setback his government got in regional elections last week, French President Jacques Chirac dramatically reshuffled his government. The likeliest long-term impact of the Chirac shuffle, Paris watchers in Washington said last week, is more strained relations with the U.S. after Chirac’s term is up in ’07 and the French elect a new president.

Although Chirac retained Jean-Pierre Raffarin as prime minister, he turned his Cabinet upside down. The most dramatic changes were the naming of Foreign Minister (and long-assumed Chirac heir apparent for president) Dominique de Villepin as Interior Minister and shifting the present Interior Minister Nicholas Sarkozy (who is not close to Chirac and makes no secret of his desire to succeed him) as finance minister.

While the titles and power therein may not sound significant to most Americans, they have a profound impact on France and Europe. Translated from French, de Villepin–even more notorious than Chirac at the U.S. State Department and on the Washington diplomatic cocktail circuit for his relentless criticism of U.S. action in Iraq and support of a French-dominated European Union–now gets the domestic clout to lay the groundwork for a presidential campaign when Chirac steps down in ’07–overseeing security from local to the national level, homeland security, immigration. Machiavelli admirer de Villepin also now controls the all-powerful counterintelligence service.

In contrast, the 49-year-old Sarkovzy was given what is tantamount to a demotion among Frenchmen: put in charge of launching a recovery of what is now the most stagnant and moribund among European economies. Unemployment in France is now a striking 9.6% and finances are at their lowest ebb since the oil shock of 1973.

In a country where statism seems a required religion for most office-holders, Sarkozy is an admirer of Margaret Thatcher-esque economics and, as the equivalent of Office of Management and Budget chief in the ’90’s, he was a vigorous advocate of reducing taxes. The man Frenchmen call “Sarko” is also no Chirac clone; his mentor was former Premier and Finance Minister Eduard Balladur, the French pol admired by American conservatives such as economist Paul Craig Roberts, and Chirac has reportedly never forgiven Sarkozy for campaigning for Balladur against him in the 1995 election.

So what the Chirac shuffle means is that, if “Le Grand Jacques” is unelectable himself in ’07, he wants the next best thing in de Villepin.