Michel Gurfinkiel

Michel Gurfinkiel

Michel Gurfinkiel

France/ Can de Villepin Change His Spots ?

A surprising new hard-liner in the war on terror.Dominique de Villepin offers remarkable–and unexpected–evidence that leopards can change their spots. Last year, as foreign minister of France, he torpedoed U.N. support for the war in Iraq. Today, as France's minister of the interior, he has transformed himself into a hardliner in the war on terror.

The new Villepin emerged on April 21, when Abdelkader Bouziane, an Algerian fundamentalist imam of a mosque at Vénissieux, near Lyon, was deported to his native country, without benefit of a trial. The expulsion order had been signed two months earlier, on February 26, by the previous minister of the interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, but not put into effect. Sarkozy and the entire French cabinet were busy with the regional elections, which took place on March 21 and March 28 and ended in disaster for Jacques Chirac's conservative party.

On March 31, Sarkozy, seen as the least politically damaged senior minister, was moved to the finance ministry, while Villepin, a staunch Chirac loyalist, took over at interior. Villepin was under no obligation to heed his predecessor's decisions. Still, he saw to it that Bouziane's deportation was carried out. The Vénissieux imam was well-known among Lyon-area Muslims as a polygamist, a theorist of women's God-ordained inferiority, and an advocate of the Sharia-sanctioned right of husbands to strike "rebellious wives." He had been explicit about this in an interview with Lyon Mag, a local monthly. Moreover, Renseignements Généraux, France's domestic intelligence agency, had determined that he was preaching rebellion against the government of France and racial hatred towards   non-Muslims in general and Jews in particular. Still, Villepin, like Sarkozy, could have postponed the expulsion. He chose not to.

As it happens, Bouziane's deportation was rescinded by the Lyon administrative court just days later, which ruled that such summary deportations should be restricted to cases of clear and imminent danger (he returned to France on May 22). The ministry insists the danger is real, but has declined to produce evidence, saying it would compromise sources. On the other hand, the court agreed that expulsion could not be ruled out in principle, since Bouziane, as a foreign clergyman, is not allowed to challenge France's constitutional order, including women's rights. A final ruling is scheduled for early June at the latest.

Again, Villepin could have passively heeded the court. Instead, he appealed the decision. He warned the National Assembly on April 28 that, were courts to undermine the government's policies against terrorism on purely procedural niceties, the government would consider changing the law: "A new balance must be found between respect for the law and the imperatives of security." And, as if to drive this point home, on May 1 he ordered the arrest and deportation of another foreign imam, Midhat Güler, who leads a radical Turkish mosque in Paris's 11th arrondissement.

There are several plausible explanations for Villepin's makeover. First is the simple fact that ministers are run by their ministries, rather than the other way around. Any government department is a world unto itself, with its own culture and folkways; in order to be successful, the politician who happens to be put in charge is well advised to listen to the civil-service professionals who are ostensibly his subordinates.

At the foreign ministry, the culture is anti-American: Villepin, who may or may not be rabidly anti-American at heart, was happy to play the part when he was boss there. The culture of the interior ministry is hyper-security conscious. The right move for Villepin, again, is to conform. Especially if he wants not just to be as successful as Sarkozy but to outshine him in the event they face off as conservative contenders for the presidency in 2007. If "Paris is worth a mass," as the Protestant Henry IV said when he converted to Catholicism in order to assume the throne, the presidency of modern France is certainly worth a political change of heart.

What is more, internal security has been an urgent issue in France since long before 9/11. Paris was one of the first Western capitals exposed to Middle Eastern terrorism, with the rue Copernic and rue des Rosiers anti-Jewish attacks of 1980 and 1982, and the 1986 bombings on rue Marbeuf and rue de Rennes. There was a second round of terrorism in 1994 and 1995, when groups linked to the Algerian Islamist networks attacked the Paris metro on three occasions–killing and maiming dozens, attempted to blow up the high-speed train that connects Paris to Lyon, and hijacked an airplane from Algeria to Marseilles, possibly in order to launch a suicide attack on some major Paris monument.

The terrorist pressure has never really subsided. Numerous synagogues and Jewish schools have been burned in arson attacks in Paris, Lyon, and Marseilles   in the last four years. French military personnel in Pakistan were singled out in a suicide attack in 2002, in retaliation for France's participation in the U.S.-led, anti-Taliban coalition in Afghanistan. More threats have been heard in recent months, since the French parliament passed a law barring the Islamic veil, as well as other religious symbols (yarmulkes, crosses) at schools and other public places. And of course, there is the perennial concern over homegrown, separatist terror groups, whether Corsican, Basque, or even Breton. In 1998, Corsican terrorists were well organized and brazen enough to kill the government's highest-ranking administrator on the island, Prefect Claude Erignac.

Whatever the political response to terror over the years–sometimes forceful but quite often cautious or even passive–the French security agencies, including Renseignements Généraux, Police Judiciaire (the ordinary criminal police), the DNAT (a national antiterrorist task force), and the DST (domestic security), have opted for toughness and have been supported by like-minded investigative judges. Arguably, they have done a better job than most other Western security forces.

In the aftermath of 9/11, for instance, the French police were able to round up overnight almost all al Qaeda sympathizers in the country, something few other Western police forces could do at the time. Efficiency in these matters, in France as elsewhere, means not being paralyzed by pressure from the courts, which tend to be more liberal-minded. And resisting such pressure, more often than not, means getting the backing of the minister of the interior, especially in cases like Bouziane's, where some vital information cannot be disclosed. Villepin seems to have learned quickly that he had to deliver, and to deliver quickly, in order to be as popular as Sarkozy.

The other factor pushing Villepin towards toughness might be termed continental peer pressure. Germany is the one country in Europe that Villepin cultivated throughout his tenure as foreign minister. Last year, his German counterpart was the Green foreign minister Joschka Fischer, who was willing to side with France against America, at least for a while. Today Villepin must deal with Otto Schily, the Social Democratic minister of the interior, who is, to say the least, an antiterrorist hawk. And Schily is facing disputes very similar to the Bouziane case: A German court resolved on appeal to free two Moroccan Islamists sentenced by another court as full-fledged accomplices in the 9/11 operations, Mounir al-Motassadeq and Abdelghani Mzoudi, some of the evidence having been withheld at the request of the U.S. government. On April 26, Schily spoke his mind in an interview with Der Spiegel, the nation's largest and most influential weekly. He said bluntly that "terrorists who love death can get their wish" and that laws that did not allow for swift and efficient security measures would have to be changed. The parallel with Villepin's own words at the National Assembly two days later is striking. A further sign of a French-German meeting of minds is the extradition from Germany to France, on May 18, of Lionel Dumont, a French gangster who converted to Islam and is seen as one of the most dangerous jihad organizers in Europe and the Far East.

Schily, as it happens, is also a close ally of Attorney General John Ashcroft in the fight against terror. It is conceivable, then, that Dominique de Villepin–as responsible as any man for sundering U.S.-European cooperation in Iraq–could end up an enthusiastic partner in a vibrant international antiterror coalition. Stranger political transformations have no doubt taken place in our time, but it's hard to think of any.

Special to The Weekly Standard
(c) Michel Gurfinkiel & The Weekly Standard, 2004

Michel Gurfinkiel is the Editor in Chief of Valeurs Actuelles, a Paris-based journal.

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