Having been written off as lame ducks after a series of domestic setbacks, Jacques Chirac and Dominique de Villepin, France’s president and prime minister, are regaining popularity with voters thanks to their diplomacy in the Middle East.
Approval ratings for both men, whose political fortunes appeared until recently to be on the decline, have risen 5 percentage points in a month, according to an opinion poll published at the weekend. Analysts attributed the jump to the pivotal role France has played in international attempts to halt the violence in Lebanon.
The domestic approval greeting France’s approach to the conflict is in sharp contrast to the criticism received by Prime Minister Tony Blair in the UK, particularly over his decision to side with the US in not immediately calling for a pause in the fighting.
Before the latest crisis in the Middle East, Mr Chirac and his prime minister appeared increasingly impotent. Over the last 14 months, voters have rejected the European Union constitutional treaty, youths have rioted in the suburbs and students have helped block an attempt to make the labour market more flexible.
With any increase in approval for Mr Chirac and Mr de Villepin coming from a low base, the shift in public opinion represents more a softening of deep-rooted dissatisfaction than an outright resurgence of affection. However, the duo’s recovery could accelerate if a Franco-American ceasefire plan can overcome an initial rejection by the Lebanese government.
France has played a central role in international attempts to end the bloodshed, in keeping with its historical ties to Lebanon which was administered by Paris under a League of Nations mandate between 1920 and 1943.
Mr de Villepin travelled to Beirut to mediate early in the present crisis, and images of his visit figured prominently in the European media. Philippe Douste-Blazy, French foreign minister, has also been a frequent visitor; his most recent trip took place last week. Their efforts helped to produce the draft United Nations ceasefire resolution which was backed by the US but rejected by Lebanon.
Mr Douste-Blazy yesterday said he had taken note of the points made to him by Fouad Siniora, Lebanon’s prime minister, such as the demand for a withdrawal of Israeli troops. However, Mr Douste-Blazy argued that it was necessary to have a text that also satisfied Israeli concerns.
In Saturday’s poll, published in the Figaro newspaper, 21 per cent of respondents said they had complete or partial confidence in the president’s ability to handle France’s problems, up from 16 per cent a month previously. Mr de Villepin’s rating on the same question rose from 17 per cent to 22 per cent.
The increase in trust was particularly marked among members of the public sympathetic to the far right National Front party – voters who are likely to be of pivotal importance to the outcome of next year’s presidential election.
In contrast, the broader popularity rating of Nicolas Sarkozy, the interior minister who is Mr de Villepin’s great rival in the ruling UMP party, fell by 5 percentage points to 45 per cent, although he remained well ahead of the prime minister.
The restoration of Mr Chirac and Mr de Villepin’s battered credibility could be more advanced than the Figaro/TNS Sofres poll suggested, however.
The interviews for the survey were carried out on July 26 and 27 – before France and the US agreed on their draft ceasefire resolution.