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1 March 2011

Will Alain Juppé turn out to be Sarkozy’s nemesis?

The French right could yet turn to the new foreign minister in next year’s presidential elections.

By Jonathan Derbyshire

Last summer I wrote a piece for the magazine about the sinister turn taken by President Nicolas Sarkozy’s “war on delinquency”. Sarkozy’s response to unrest in the suburbs of several French cities was to threaten to deprive French citizens of “foreign descent” of their nationality if they were found guilty of criminal offences and to deport hundreds of Roma to Bulgaria and Romania.

As I pointed out, Sarkozy’s assault on the French republican conception of citizenship attracted criticism from right as well as left – notably from the former foreign minister Dominique de Villepin and the ex-prime minister Alain Juppé.

The criticism by big beasts like Juppé and Villepin will no doubt have stung the president. And Juppé was at it again last week, warning that the national debate on the place of religion in France proposed by Sarkozy risked “stigmatising” Islam, the second-biggest religion in the country.

Now, however, perhaps on the principle that it’s better to have your enemies inside the tent pissing out than outside the tent pissing in, Sarkozy has appointed Juppé as foreign minister, after the resignation of Michèle Alliot-Marie and severe criticism of the performance of French diplomats since the Arab uprisings began in January.

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What’s more, it seems that he initially offered the job to de Villepin (who was foreign minister under Jacques Chirac at the time of the Iraq war).

With the next presidential election a little over a year away, the appointment is a significant admission by Sarkozy that things have gone awry in his administration. Hervé Gattegno, editor of Le Point, describes it as Sarkozy’s “second abdication” (the first being his decision in November 2010, taken after months of vacillation, to retain François Fillon as his prime minister):

Sarkozy decides to thank Alliot-Marie for her services, having supported her for as long as he could. And everyone knows that Juppé has dictated his terms, starting with depriving Claude Guéant [Sarkozy’s chief of staff] of any influence on foreign affairs . . . It is clear that Juppé demanded, and has been given, control of his own domain.

And, as an unsigned article in Le Monde suggests today, the right could yet turn to Juppé in next year’s election if Sarkozy’s poll numbers continue to plunge. Dare I say that the closing lines of my piece now look rather prescient?

“Power,” Napoleon once said, “is my mistress. I have worked too hard at her conquest to allow anyone to take her away from me.” Whether Sarkozy will be able to protect his conquest between now and the election in 2012 remains to be seen.