Why, on a wildly rainy September night in New York, would Dominique de Villepin give a speech in a bunkerlike auditorium two floors below the public library on 42nd Street? Why would the former French foreign minister speak to a roomful of dapper Francophiles and bow-tie-wearing octogenarians on the subject of “Terrorism and French-American relations”?
The short answer was: to publicize a book. His book, Toward a New World, a collection of speeches about the Iraq war and other matters, and featuring a close-up photograph of his own silvery mug (against a radiant, otherworldly orange background) on the cover. But perhaps because a French politician must be seen as being above vulgar self-advertisement, no copies of the tome were displayed, let alone sold, which must have been bad news for Melville House, the publisher. This was a book tour — a one-stop book tour — without a book.
For one of the most famous politicians in the world, returning to the city in which he became a star, a more low-profile public appearance would be hard to imagine. Though a handful of press photographers clicked away on oversized cameras, and 60 Minutes’ Leslie Stahl took notes in the audience, there was an atmosphere almost of secrecy, of samizdat, as if Villepin were a clandestine leader addressing a troop of incredibly well-heeled dissidents.
Villepin came swathed in layers of security. Aside from his own bodyguards, there were also police from the French Embassy in Washington, D.C., the library’s own security force, and the NYPD. More importantly, perhaps, there were also layers of protective Americans whose politics were of a decidedly Euro-friendly bent. Paul LeClerc, the president of the library, spoke briefly about French-American cultural relations. Then the library’s new director of public programs, Paul Holdengraber, formerly of LACMA and a multilingual European intellectual out of an old Peter Lorre movie, directed some welcoming remarks to Villepin himself in elaborately fluent French. Finally, Stanley Hoffman, a professor of political and intellectual French history at Harvard University, spoke eloquently in praise of eloquence — not his own, but Villepin’s. The man, he assured us, was a scholar, a poet, and a true intellectual. In short (went the unspoken thought), “He’s everything George Bush isn’t!”
But Villepin was not in New York to speak about literature. Within moments of his taking the podium, you knew you were in the presence of a politician who was going to deliver a thoroughly professional, rather cautious political speech. Tall, slender, dressed in an elegant gray suit, Villepin read from a prepared text for almost an hour and rarely made eye contact with his audience. He was so smoothly impersonal he might have been a hologram. The speech, though clearly critical of the war in Iraq and the war on terror, did not mention President Bush. The election was referred to once (“Whatever the political choices the American people make”), but that was all. It was certainly eloquent and thoughtful, but even for this Francophiliac audience it was perhaps a little too strong on rhetoric and short on concrete proposals.
The evening was dominated by the number three. There were three introductions before Villepin’s speech, three questions from the audience after his speech, and the speech itself was tripartite to a fault. Looking back over the modern era, Villepin identified three major waves of terrorism — national between World War I and II and in the 1970s; international in the 1990s (Bosnia, etc.); and global starting with 9/11. This newest form of terrorism, he told us, was built on three methodological pillars — force, media dispersion, and jihad — and created three traps for its adversaries, all of which the U.S. had fallen into: waging a conventional war against an unconventional enemy; succumbing to the temptation to “go outside democratic laws”; and to count solely on the use of force.
As to why terrorism was such a serious problem, Villepin offered three explanations, followed by three paradoxes, three principles and three priorities. Finally, he whittled things down to pairs. Terrorism must be fought with resolve and lucidity, he said, as well as guile and graciousness. It was all very intelligent, persuasive up to a point, but also a bit woolly. The applause was cooler than might have been expected.
The questions from the audience were polite but pointed. The second, in which Villepin was congratulated on his speech, praised for his reasonableness, and then asked whether he could identify any figure equivalent to himself in the Muslim world, brought forth a lengthy, circuitous response that somehow ended up on the subject of globalization and which could have been summed up in a single word: No. After a third questioner had asked Villepin why the French government was secretly funding Hamas — a charge Villepin vehemently denied — Paul Holdengraber hurriedly brought an end to the evening.
At the champagne reception afterwards, Villepin mixed with Joan Didion, The New York Review of Books’ Bob Silvers, Diane von Furstenberg and others. I found myself standing next to Melville House publisher Dennis Johnson and the editor of Harper’s, Lewis Lapham, who was twirling an empty wine glass. “We’re going to Elaine’s later,” Lapham told Johnson. “You want to come?”
Villepin couldn’t make it to Elaine’s. A few minutes later, surrounded by French security, he left for the airport.