'Shock Ticket'

"An Explosive Tandem," "A Shocking Duo," "The Brother Enemies." The French press has made France's new government sound like a superhero death match. In one corner, the new prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, familiar to Americans as the arrogant, suave, silver-maned intellectual who confronted the United States at the United Nations in the lead-up to the Iraq war. In the other, his new second in command, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy: arrogant, scrappy, hyperactive and hell-bent on winning the presidency for himself. After a resounding "non" to the European constitution sent French politics into crisis Sunday, President Jacques Chirac surprised everyone by naming these bitter political rivals, de Villepin and Sarkozy, to lead a new government. The presidential race of 2007 has now begun. The only question is whether it will look like an elegant duel among gentlemen or an all-out barroom brawl.

France's firm weekend rebuff of the European constitution was followed yesterday by the Netherlands, which may have delivered the document's coup de grace. Dutch voters showed even greater disdain for the treaty than the French, with 61.6 percent voting against it. As in France, turnout in the Netherlands was high, at 62.8 percent.

And while looking for winners in the confused rubble left by these stunning reversals isn't easy, the French fracas may be instructive. At the very least, it promises to be entertaining. Sarkozy, 50, prides himself on being a man of the people. The diminutive son of a Hungarian immigrant, he was elected the country's youngest mayor at 28. De Villepin, 51, is a haughty aristocrat, career diplomat and published poet who has never run for any office. Pugnacity meets panache, grit meets grace. For the media, says Beatrice Gurrey of the French daily Le Monde, "It's extraordinary, it's unheard of in French politics. It's captivating; it's almost fiction."

There is, too, something of a tragic epic about this contest, which has rendered Chirac all but irrelevant, even though he is the sitting president and has barely disguised his desire for a third term. In the space of a single televised interview 11 months ago, the president sealed his fate. Chirac's traditional Bastille Day sit-down with the TV cameras, often a ho-hum affair broadcast live after the military parades, turned nasty. Sarkozy was finance minister, and his public criticisms had gotten under the president's skin. Chirac scolded him on national television. "I make the decisions, and he executes them," he said. Chirac then threatened to push Sarkozy out of office if he took over UMP, Chirac's political party. Some applauded the president's assertiveness. But others heard desperation. And minutes after admonishing Sarkozy, Chirac made the move his maverick minister had been advocating for weeks: Chirac called a referendum on the European constitution. This week, Chirac, France and the rest of Europe paid the price. But Sarkozy appears unscathed, a lone winner among the ashes, a political genius.

Certainly, Sarkozy is no worse for wear. Chirac has taken the fall for badly losing the referendum he called; his chance at a third term, say commentators, is severely compromised. A poll released today shows that French trust in the president dropped 8 percentage points this month, to 24 percent--his lowest score since winning the office 10 years ago. Meanwhile, Sarkozy polls as France's favorite politician. He was elected as president of Chirac's party in November with an extraordinary 85.1 percent of party support. At the time, Chirac made good on his threat, and Sarkozy was forced to leave the cabinet. But Tuesday night, back before the TV cameras to proclaim his new prime minister, the ever-faithful de Villepin, a backpedaling Chirac was forced to mention Sarkozy, too. The president was chastened on the very stage he'd used to chasten his challenger. His lip curling ironically--or perhaps it was a wince--Chirac told the nation, "In the spirit of unity, I have asked Nicolas Sarkozy to rejoin the government."

Even before the announcement, the mere rumor of Sarkozy's return to center stage overshadowed de Villepin's appointment as the head of the government. But official word of the "shock ticket" sent the French press into frenzy. Sarkozy replaces de Villepin at the Interior Ministry, where Sarkozy has already shone. From May 2002 to March 2004, Sarkozy's energetic turn as France's top cop won him the French public's attention, and he has never let it go. Police unions have already chimed in, delighted about the straight-talking Sarkozy's return.

At the Interior Ministry, Sarkozy will be working under new PM De Villepin, although the two men are said to detest one another. But there, too, Sarkozy might draw advantage from second billing. "Sarkozy has the advantage of having power--and he's at his best when he's in action. But he isn't exposed the way the prime minister is, so he doesn't get burned ahead of the 2007 elections," argues Gurrey, the Le Monde reporter, who has written a book on the Sarkozy-Chirac relationship.

So Sarkozy just may have cleared his way to a presidential run in 2007. But what good is a run for the presidency if voters already seem to have rejected your party? Well, the referendum has helped Sarkozy on that score, too. Under his leadership during the referendum campaign, Sarkozy's UMP party remained fairly united. Meanwhile, the Socialist Party, the only other French party with a real chance at leading a government, has been badly split. "On the left side, it is very difficult, between the 'yes' and the 'no.' The left will be very divided," argues economist and political commentator, Nicolas Baverez.

So has Chirac indeed sparked a battle that will eclipse his own future? Perhaps. But the political obituaries may yet prove premature. The old master, after all, has fought 40 years of political death matches--and won them all.