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Le Requin et la Mouette (The Shark and the Seagull) By Dominique de Villepin 260 pages, Paris: Plon, 2004 (in French) Dominique de Villepin could hardly have been more fortunate in the timing of his turn on the world stage. The diplomatic crisis over Iraq in 2002 made him the first French foreign minister to ...

Le Requin et la Mouette (The Shark and the Seagull)
By Dominique de Villepin
260 pages, Paris: Plon, 2004 (in French)

Dominique de Villepin could hardly have been more fortunate in the timing of his turn on the world stage. The diplomatic crisis over Iraq in 2002 made him the first French foreign minister to be taken seriously since Robert Schuman or perhaps even Talleyrand. In leading opposition to the United States’ war against Saddam Hussein, France appeared to be a great power speaking for something greater than itself.

In a dramatic Jan. 20, 2003, press conference, Villepin shook the United States and its allies by declaring that "military intervention [in Iraq] would be the worst solution." U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell called the comment "an ambush" — and it was. The previous evening, Villepin and Powell dined together privately and polished the draft of the umpteenth U.N. resolution on Iraq — this one authorizing the military option. At least, that was what Powell thought. Instead, Villepin used a press conference following a Security Council meeting on terrorism the next day to make his stunning remarks.

Suddenly, a new battle line formed at the United Nations. Russia, China, and Germany rallied to the French cause, and Villepin embarked on a frenzied world tour to win support from smaller nations. In its way, it was magnificent: a rare moment in which the Lilliputians tied down Gulliver. It made the handsome, charming, and articulate Villepin into a star. On the strength of his tour de force, Villepin, now minister of the interior, has become President Jacques Chirac’s heir apparent. In the admirable French tradition, however, Villepin feels the need to bolster his intellectual credentials for the job. So, while filling a succession of senior government posts in the last four years, he published five books.

In 2002, Le cri de la Gargouille (The Cry of the Gargoyle) mourned the current torpor of la grande nation and betrayed a romantic’s sensibility in the suggestion that "our country advances only through crises and in tragedy." Then, in 2003, came a 600-page survey of poetry (including his own), in which the poet is man as myth, sharing both the daring and suffering of Prometheus, under the title Éloge des Voleurs de Feu (Homage to the Fire Thieves). Next was an updated version of his 500-page treatment of Napoleon’s brief return to power before his final defeat at Waterloo. In last year’s Un Nouveau Monde (An Alternative World), Villepin acted more as editor and impresario than author, collecting the thoughts of intellectuals who agreed with him that "two visions of the world confront each other." One vision is American, based on raw capitalism and the survival of the fittest, and the other is French, rooted in social solidarity.

Now Villepin has published Le Requin et la Mouette (The Shark and the Seagull). Villepin’s shark is "a symbol of power, strength, and the refusal to be halted by the complexity of the world." His seagull, by contrast, is a graceful and almost epicene creature. While the shark commands its environment and is master of its fate, the seagull "watches, soars, approaches, climbs and swoops, turns suddenly. The straight line is seldom her course. She listens to the world."

The most popular interpretation, of course, is that the shark is the United States, a killing machine limited to the underworld, and France is the seagull, soaring above land and sea. A more parochial take has Nicolas Sarkozy, the former interior minister and Villepin’s main rival to succeed Chirac, as the shark, and Villepin himself as the seagull, an elegant and poetic free spirit. A senior British diplomat not usually given to irreverence suggested that the seagull had to be Villepin because "he squawks incessantly, makes a lot of fuss and leaves his malodorous droppings all over the place." (Villepin’s image among his fellow diplomats is colored by the roguish, if not quite shark-like, reputation he developed among Washington women during his tour in the French Embassy to the United States in the 1980s.)

The Shark and the Seagull is a schizophrenic effort whose beginning and end are rambling and orotund meditations on history, civilization, human fate, and the immortal mission of France. In prose so grandiose it should be read to the sound of trumpets, Villepin asserts that his exceptional nation must prevent a clash of civilizations and "the advance of a soulless globalization." Villepin’s flourishes often leave behind little meaning. In the conclusion, Villepin offers up this gem: "Liberty consists perhaps not in deciding the goal, but liberty certainly resides in the grandeur with which that goal is pursued."

For Villepin, "Everywhere resounds the chorus of a world deprived of soul and spirit, crushed under the heavy roller of economic liberalism." Finding the path away from this tyranny requires not just a different policy, but "a new myth, a fertile word, a grand gesture to define a future." Like a French officer at Verdun, Villepin exhorts his readers to seize the moment. "Children, we have all dreamed of living in other times. That of the Great Discoveries, of the Musketeers or of the Revolution! But is there an epoch more passionate, more overturning than our own? Where man can imagine becoming once more master of his destiny, to choose his life. Where all the world’s peoples want to believe in that utopia become reality — Fraternité." For Villepin, the great age of France and her ideals could be dawning at last.

Villepin’s introductory and concluding chapters are dizzying in ambition and relentless in the argument that the American shark is the problem and the French seagull the solution. The core of the book is different. The writing becomes crisp as Villepin recounts the confrontation with the Americans at the United Nations. The disagreement, he insists, went well beyond different readings of the evidence on weapons and terrorist ties. "Against France, heir of the pragmatism of Cardinal Richelieu, supporter of a system of inter-state relations based on custom, on the transaction and exploitation of national interests, the USA affirmed its power and refused to share it." The Americans negotiated only to create more facts on the ground, Villepin suggests. He contends that, in response, he witnessed the emergence of "the multipolar world for which France had called since the days of General de Gaulle."

There is a book to be written about the U.N. crisis over Iraq, but this is not it. There is too little detail and analysis of the positions taken by other Security Council members. There is also a book to be written about the self-destructive tendencies of the Bush administration and the mounting difficulties of its quasi-imperial pursuits. Indeed, America’s unipolar moment may have already passed. Europe is an economic and technological rival, China and India are rising fast, and Russia is reviving its ambitions. The struggle for mastery in Asia is more likely to be settled by Tokyo, New Delhi, and Beijing than by Washington. The American hyperpower will sooner or later find itself reduced to first among equals, dancing the familiar game of nations with the European Union, Japan, China, Russia, India, and possibly Brazil.

This calculation underpins France’s grand strategy, and Villepin might have explored the coming realignment and its implications. Instead, we have his rhetoric and the disturbing sense that if this multipolar world is to have a strong flavor of Villepin, then the rest of us might want to look for alternatives. In the torrent of patriotic prose are hints that Villepin’s vanity knows no bounds, and that a Francophone Walter Mitty lurks beneath the carefully tended hair. Then again, Villepin has long seen himself as part of a heroic French tradition. In his book on Waterloo, for example, he mused on Napoleon and de Gaulle and concluded that "their spirit is better understood by poets, who feel the same hunger for the absolute, than by those who kneel before the altar of fact…. Great men, by contrast, invent history and impose their own destinies."

With such an heir apparent, Chirac might want to verify the loyalties of the Republican Guard at the Elysee Palace. Arabs who thrill to Villepin’s critique of the Americans might recall the ruthlessness of his hero’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 and Napoleon’s slaughter of the prisoners at Acre. The Anglo-Saxons have their own memories of Napoleon and de Gaulle, and after the French performance before the Iraq war, they will need little reminder of Villepin’s conviction that he embodies something of each.

Fortunately, many French citizens have their feet closer to the ground. While promoting his book on a French talk show, Villepin was asked about the disparity of power between the two beasts of his title. He replied, "Ah, but the shark can never catch the seagull." At which point, the actor Gerard Depardieu interrupted: "But seagulls? Why seagulls? Seagulls are bloody stupid birds."

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