The front-page headline of Wednesday's edition of the French daily Le Parisien could not have been clearer or more humiliating for the French prime minister: "What use is Villepin?"
It is now evident that Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin is the big loser in the months-long conflict over the youth jobs law that he introduced in mid-January and then rushed through parliament without consulting trade unions and after cutting short parliamentary debate.
At the weekend, President Jacques Chirac, desperate to end the crisis, signed the First Job Contract (CPE) into law and then made sure it would not be applied.
He also effectively took Villepin out of the game and replaced him with his great rival for the 2007 presidential elections, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.
In suspending the CPE immediately after making it law, Chirac followed Sarkozy's advice and then charged the ambitious interior minister and head of the ruling UMP party with managing the negotiations over a new version of the law.
The elegant, aristocratic-looking Villepin thus appears to have been left twisting slowly in the wind by his longtime friend and political mentor, a sorry target for left-wing opposition parties eager to profit from the government's apparent disarray.
"You do not govern any more," the head of the Socialist Party bloc in the National Assembly, Jean-Marc Ayrault, told Villepin to his face on Tuesday. "You only hold the appearance of power, but you no longer exercise it. This is called a government crisis, with two prime ministers."
Villepin's chances for the 2007 elections are now virtually non-existent. More than that, however, unless the politically agile Sarkozy manages to resolve the crisis soon, his and Chirac's last year in government will be long remembered as a disaster of historic proportions.
"There are no longer any institutions, no more government, no more prime minister," a deputy from the centrist UDF party complained, and described the situation with an obscenity.
The head of the UDF, Francois Bayrou, said the crisis is so deep that it may lead to early elections.
"That is where we are heading with ever greater speed," Bayrou said.
He and other politicians denounced the fact that the resolution of the crisis is no longer in the hands of the government but in those of a single party, Sarkozy's UMP, whose parliamentary leaders were to meet union heads on Wednesday to discuss the law.
"That the government steps aside in favor of the head of the majority party [Sarkozy], ... this is a system that has never existed here," Bayrou complained. "It's no longer even a government of parties, but a party government."
Most observers place the blame for the institutional disorder squarely on Villepin and Chirac's shoulders. The prime minister is criticized for his unwillingness to brook debate on the law and for his intransigence in the face of stiff and growing protests.
Villepin's inflexibility also managed to unite a broad, often squabbling alliance of trade and student unions who, two Tuesdays in succession, mobilized millions of people to protest across France against the CPE.
As for Chirac, in trying to resolve the crisis by pleasing everyone, he apparently succeeded in pleasing no one but Sarkozy, his longtime political adversary, and in setting political precedents that are better soon forgotten.