Are Jacques Chirac's Days Numbered?

This is a partial transcript of "The Big Story With John Gibson," May 31, 2005, that has been edited for clarity.

JOHN GIBSON, HOST: French President Jacques Chirac (search) is surrounding himself with friends after suffering a painful, humiliating, awful defeat. He has named close adviser Dominique de Villepin (search) as the country's new prime minister and now wants Villepin to form a new government. The change of command comes after voters rejected Chirac's call to ratify a European Union constitution.

Joining me now is John O'Sullivan, former adviser to British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher.

Mr. O'Sullivan, how bad is this for Chirac?

JOHN O'SULLIVAN, BENADOR ASSOCIATES: It's very bad, indeed. It makes it almost impossible for him to run again in the next presidential election in a few years time. It also means that his opponents on the left in the Socialist Party, like Laurent Fabius (search) — the only member of the French political establishment to urge a no-vote and who has had a great personal triumph — it makes it likely that Fabius would be a serious contender.

And in Chirac's own party, he's now reduced to trying to build up his friend Dominique de Villepin against his rival, the head of the Conservative Party there, Nicholas Sarkozy (search), who hates Chirac and whom Chirac hates.

GIBSON: You know, Americans don't like Chirac much either and probably are taking a little bit of delight in his painful situation. This was, after all, the guy who was going to run George Bush off the world stage. Bush is firmly ensconced and Chirac seems to be headed for the exit. Is this a good thing for Americans?

O'SULLIVAN: Well, I think it is, for large and small reasons. The small reason is that it is somewhat of a humiliation for Chirac.

I wouldn't totally write him out, by the way. He isn't a great achiever, but he is a great survivor. But it's also in America's interests that this constitution be defeated because it is a step towards a more protectionist Europe, a more tightly integrated, tightly regulated, more socialist Europe, and towards a less Atlantic Europe. And for all these reasons, it would be good if this constitution were defeated.

And the way were left open for Europe to be in a sense redesigned along lines that America would find more congenial. Tony Blair in Britain wants to do that. So does his conservative opposition. It looks as though we are going to have a new conservative government in Germany under Angela Merkel (search). She is more Atlanticist than the present German chancellor.

So, things could be moving in America's direction in Europe, provided that the U.S. takes cognizance of what's going and actually, in a quiet, discrete, diplomatic way, backs its friends — who include particularly Britain, Eastern Europe — who want a more Atlanticist, who want a more capitalist Europe.

GIBSON: Mr. O'Sullivan, the guy that Chirac is putting forward, Dominique de Villepin, is about as symbolic an anti-American European as you could get. This is the guy who, during the run-up to the war, in the U.N. went around the world organizing countries everywhere on the planet to stand against the United States. He's now accused, France is accused of having sold its veto to Saddam Hussein through this Oil-for-Food (search) scandal.

Why should we feel good that Dominique de Villepin is now going to be the prime minister of France?

O'SULLIVAN: Well, I wouldn't be particularly pleased by that.

And I wouldn't, by the way, underestimate Villepin either. He's everything that you said. But it's also fair to say that he is a distinguished French intellectual, a poet and a novelist, a historian. He is extremely dashing, a good-looking Frenchman in the Charles Boulle mold. And he's also somebody whom has the full support of the president.

In other words, he will be able to get things done in a way that some other prime minister might not be able to. So, he is a formidable figure. I don't think he is going to beat Nicholas Sarkozy in the race for the next right-wing candidate for presidency of France. I think that Nicholas Sarkozy is going to win that race.

But, again, I wouldn't rule Villepin out either. And I would say that everything you said was true, except one thing. I don't believe the French sold their vote to Saddam Hussein. I believe they pocketed an unnecessary bribe because they were going to vote that way anyway.

GIBSON: A distinction without difference. Mr. O'Sullivan, thank you very much. I appreciate it.

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