Punch and Judy have nothing on Jean-Pierre and Dominique, France's pugilistic conservative politicians. Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and his Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin have long discounted press reports that de Villepin is after his boss's job. But last week the gloves came off when de Villepin took to the radio and declared that France needed new policies and direction and indicated he'd be available to provide that leadership, confessing he was one of those "who all their lives prepare to fulfill missions." Change, he said, should "take ... into account the feelings, hopes, and frustrations being expressed" by a fearful French nation that requires "policies more proactive, bolder and more socially aware." Though never explicitly naming himself heir apparent to Raffarin, de Villepin's ambitions seemed obvious when he indicated his comments had been cleared by his mentor President Jacques Chirac.
The spat comes at an awkward time for the government. Chirac has been unable to halt the advance of the no campaign ahead of the May 29 referendum on the European constitution according to a poll by BVA, 58% reject the document and many people are angry over unpopular reforms and the stalled economy. Speculation is rife that Raffarin will be pushed aside after the vote. But he was quick to respond to de Villepin's remarks, saying he'd received the full backing of the Elysée and had put the dapper Interior Minister "back into place." Though the Prime Minister may have saved face, the fight has left the ruling party with a black eye. "De Villepin is right that Raffarin's gone after the referendum, but saying so may have cost him the job," predicts an official of the ruling conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) party. "With public opinion as negative as it is, the last thing we needed was a fight in our own locker room."