Dominique de Villepin, erstwhile prime minister of France, is in Hong Kong to talk art, not politics, although, it turns out, old habits die hard. As the tall Frenchman surveys the earthy-toned canvasses and large abstract works splashed with pastel and metallic hues on show at the Kwai Fung Hin Art Gallery, on Ice House Street, he explains his patronage of the South Korean behind the "Fleeting Eternities" exhibition: "Myonghi is a woman who never makes any concession to the market. She follows her own path, from Patagonia to the Gobi Desert, from Korea to France to Beijing. She has a specificity; you can recognise her work in a glance - the way she catches space, time and colour. Her modernity is fantastic but I believe that she is what art should be - something eternal; not something that is going to be underrated in 10 or 20 years." De Villepin met Myonghi after she moved to Paris in 1972. She became part of a wider group of artists who are friends of de Villepin and the pair have collaborated on many books and exhibitions. "Myonghi is a painter who brings us a connection with our internal questions," de Villepin says. "That is true art; helping people to live the life they want to live. Giving us freedom, time, space, colour, breathing better." As he speaks, de Villepin exudes a certain French charm. He is tanned, hazel-eyed and athletic; it's not without reason the 61-year-old became something of a sex symbol following the release of photos of him emerging from the sea during a party conference in La Baule 10 years ago. The shots revealed a body buff from marathon running - an activity he has kept up - and raised flattering comparisons with James Bond. "Sport has a very important place in my life," he says. "A good day for me has between one and three hours of sport." De Villepin is a long-time supporter of and participator in the arts. His wife, Marie-Laure, is a sculptor; he is a writer, painter and published poet. "For me, poetry, like painting, like art, is as important as breathing," he says. "If you want to breathe well you need to have a dialogue with yourself that helps you live your life. Poetry brings you intensity, a feeling that you are part of a community, part of the adventure of mankind. My life: Arthur de Villepin, co-founder of a Hong Kong-based wine brand "I couldn't have survived in politics without art, literature, painting," he adds. "Impossible. There is not one day in my life when I am not confronting myself through art. As a politician, every day is difficult. Every day is an aggression. People are trying to use you, people are trying to hit you. It's like being in a boxing ring. "If you want to be able to see better [you need to] understand where you are and the situation you are in. Art helps give you that understanding. It helps you to know who you are, where you are going, never forgetting the objective and to appreciate the current moment, even if it's really hard and you're suffering." DE VILLEPIN WAS BORN in Rabat, Morocco, in 1953, the son of Xavier de Villepin, a French civil servant and senator. Dominique lived in South America then New York, before returning to France to attend university. He clocked up degrees in civil law and French literature before enrolling in the national school for civil servants, L'École Nationale d'Administration (ENA), in the process becoming an " énarque ", a member of the political elite that runs modern France. His classmates included the incumbent president, François Hollande, and Minister for Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy Ségolène Royal. A childhood spent abroad "completely changed me and formulated my personality", says de Villepin. "I am often seen as coming from a European and an aristocratic background. In fact, I came from the south and the emerging world. I am not part of Western culture at all. I have learnt to be a Westerner but I am from the outside. But this has helped me a lot in both my career and life, even if it created a lot of misunderstanding. People could not understand why I'd take a certain stance on the Middle Eastern question, or on other international matters, but mainly it is because I come from the south." From 1980 to 1993, Villepin's career plodded the safe, steady course of the diplomatic services. He worked variously as a press officer in Washington, chief assistant to the ambassador in New Delhi and the Foreign Ministry's top adviser on Africa. When he came under the eye of then mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac, in the 1980s, however, de Villepin's star began to ascend. Chirac took him on as an adviser on foreign policy and then, in 1995, had de Villepin lead his successful presidential campaign. De Villepin's lack of connection to rank and file politics, his perceived aristocratic background and the fact that he has never been elected to a public position have dogged him throughout his career. "He goes on about 'the people' but has never travelled second class in his life," said one of his main rivals, Nicolas Sarkozy. "He goes on about the grass roots but has never stood for election." Chirac, however, did not lose faith in his protégé and, in 2002, appointed de Villepin foreign minister. The following year, de Villepin gave a speech against the use of force in Iraq at the United Nations Security Council. The speech, which laid out clearly why France favoured the continued, if fraught, programme of weapons inspections, received rare applause in the Security Council and reinvigorated support for him in France. It didn't go down so well with the Americans and their allies, who were pushing to invade. De Villepin's disdain for American foreign policy was followed with a more circumlocutory punch a year later, in the form of a politico-philosophical book titled The Shark and the Seagull . France, in the guise of a graceful seagull, "watches, soars, approaches, climbs and swoops, turns suddenly. The straight line is rarely her course. She listens to the world." America, symbolised by a ruthless shark, "cuts through the sea to catch its prey … a symbol of power, strength and refusal to be halted by the complexity of the world". As adversaries go, however, none could rival Sarkozy, as he and de Villepin vied to be Chirac's heir. The foes could not have been cut from more different cloth. In one corner stood de Villepin, the tall, handsome, intellectual, aristocratic poet; in the other, Sarkozy, the diminutive son of a Hungarian immigrant, pulled up the political ladder by his own bootstraps, nicknamed the "King of Bling-Bling" for his love of glitz. The duel, in all its vitriol, made for compulsive following and satire in the French press. De Villepin was known to call Sarkozy " le nain " (the dwarf). Sarkozy promised to "hang [de Villepin] from a butcher's hook". De Villepin thought Sarkozy intellectually inferior, Sarkozy thought de Villepin snooty and out of touch. In May 2005, Chirac appointed de Villepin prime minister of France and the latter gave himself 100 days to reform his country, a number of historical importance as it reflects the 100 days that elapsed between the escape of Napoleon Bonaparte from the island of Elba and his defeat at the Battle of Waterloo, in 1815. De Villepin had studied the French military and political leader in depth four years earlier and written an award-winning history book, Les Cent-Jours ou L'esprit de Sacrifice , or "100 Days or the Spirit of Sacrifice". "I wrote thousands of pages on Napoleon to show that the fall of Napoleon was inscribed since the first day," says de Villepin. "But, at the same time, Napoleon was a great man because of the way he handled this fall. He had a vision and sense of destiny. "Politics is not about winning; it's about expressing at one moment a vision, a hope, an ideal. He reconciled the French revolution and old France to build modern France. Politics is always about trying to reconcile people: divided people; divided stories; divided philosophies. Napoleon was able to do that." De Villepin's task was to reduce France's burgeoning unemployment. His attempt to change France's protectionist working practices was, perhaps like his hero, destined to fail. His fall from grace was set in motion. In 2007, although de Villepin wanted to run for president, Sarkozy was selected unopposed to represent the centre-right Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), de Villepin's party, and ran a victorious presidential campaign with his rival's formal endorsement. This public backing in no way indicated the end of their feud, which rumbled on in the shape of the Clearstream affair, a political scandal that overshadowed the run-up to the 2007 French elections. A financial clearing-house in Luxembourg, Clearstream was alleged to have helped certain French politicians and companies not only dodge tax but also take bribes during the sale of warships to Taiwan in 1991. Sarkozy, who was at the time preparing his campaign to run for president, was implicated. The accusations proved to be false and another case was opened to determine who made them. As Sarkozy's main foe, the finger was pointed at de Villepin, who stood trial for "complicity in false accusation, complicity in using forgeries, receipt of stolen property and breach of trust". He was tried in 2009 and acquitted in 2010. It seems unlikely that such a long and bitter feud has left no bad feelings, but de Villepin is circumspect: "There was a moment in my political life in which we faced a situation in which we had to fight against one another. As soon as I could, I tried to get reconciliation. Today, we speak and we meet and there is no problem at all between Nicolas Sarkozy and me." De Villepin was brought up Catholic and remains a believer, albeit a non-practising one. His views on religion are very much in line with the French concept of laïcité , the complete separation of the church and state. " Laïcité is fundamental," de Villepin says. "It helps us to maintain the cohesion of French society. It's not against religion, which is what people outside France sometimes think. It allows a neutrality of the state in which everyone has the right to choose their own religion." In 2004, as interior minister, de Villepin tried to stem the rise of radical Islam in France by including mandatory courses for Muslim clerics in French, moderate Muslim thought, laïcité , Republican ideals and law. He wanted to create a foundation that would be represented equally by mosque-based clerics and secular Muslims. Instead, Sarkozy created the French Council of the Muslim Faith, which is more orthodox. De Villepin has spoken out frequently about the rise of radical Islam in Europe and terrorism in the world. He sees it as a clear result of failed foreign policy in the West: "The rise of jihadism in Europe, the rise of populism and fear in Europe - all of this is the consequence of wrong strategies - military strategies without vision." In his famous speech to the UN in 2003, de Villepin said, "No one can assert today that the path of war will be shorter than that of inspections. No one can claim either that it might lead to a safer, more just and more stable world. For war is always the sanction of failure." Does he see the current bombing of Islamic State in Iraq, by allies including the French, as the sanction of failure? "Yes. I really believe that more than ever. We should take the lessons of the different interventions in Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Mali. You cannot succeed through just the military without having a strong political strategy. It doesn't mean you should never use force. But when you have to use force, it must be in a framework, with a very strong political vision and strategy. "This is why I am not at all optimistic about the way we are dealing with Isis and Boko Haram, in Nigeria. The problem of Isis is mainly the problem of the Sunni tribes in Iraq and Syria. We have no idea how to deal with these people. These people have been suffering so much because of the way we have handled this crisis, supported the Shiite against the Sunni tribes. They feel they are better with Isis, this bunch of terrorists, than us." In January, de Villepin called IS the "deformed child of arrogant Western policy" and publicly disagreed with American President Barack Obama's decision to form an alliance against the group. "We should try to find political strategies that are more fair, that give more perspective to these different groups," he says. "We are talking about regions that are … divided by religion, ethnicity and tradition. We need to provide the possibility for all these groups to have a future. We should not be supporting one side over another because, of course, they are going to react. So, in some way, the monsters that are Isis or Boko Haram are the sons of our own failures and policies. We need to understand that and work differently. "I don't think sending rockets is going to solve the problem. We have to understand that this has created a mess in the region. Look at what the Middle East is today: a big mess - divisions, people fighting amongst each other, Sunnis against Shiites, tribes against tribes. This also creates a mess in our own countries." Art brought de Villepin to Hong Kong but it's clear a political fire still burns bright within him. Does he miss the cut and thrust of political life? "Not at all," de Villepin says, emphatically. "I keep on with those political things I care most about, which is the international challenges. For me, France has some kind of a duty to give ideas, views and visions on the international world. And I am still very much a part of that effort through writing, conferences, the media, travelling all around the world to difficult places, trying to understand and show there is a different way. "People can listen or not, but it's important to show people there is an alternative. The logic of sanctions, the logic of exclusion and the logic of condemnation is not the logic for our world. We should always try to understand the position of others. This is typically the work of diplomats and artists." His continued interests in foreign policy include advising various organisations and groups in the mainland, which allows de Villepin to transit through Hong Kong and see his middle child, Arthur, who lives and works here, running a wine company. "People don't see the world the same way," de Villepin explains. "It's like looking at the Palestinian question through the lens of either Al Jazeera or CNN. You see different images and you have to reconcile them. That's why, every day, I try to see both the Al Jazeera view and the CNN view, to see how we can build bridges." Perhaps as a result of de Villepin's multifarious world view, and also quite possibly his interests in China, his take on the recent pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong is unsurprisingly diplomatic: "I think there is no incompatibility [between the rule of Beijing and the rule of Hong Kong]. You don't always need to confront. It's a process. You have to understand that the idea that the world can only evolve through revolution is not true any more. You have to evolve through processes that need understanding from both sides. "China has to deal with such a huge number of people, with economic challenges, social challenges, pollution problems and, at the same time, they have to construct a better state of law, a better political situation. But this has to be done through processes. Dialogue is important and intellectuals are important because they can create a bridge, create an understanding and show that it's not one side against another side. It can be one side making a gesture and the other side moving. It's about setting examples, creating successes. It's about movement. "You should never believe it is not going to work." It's clear de Villepin sees his role as being that of an intellectual bridging cultures. Of the Sino-French relationship he says, "We have been through the 50th anniversary of our diplomatic ties [between France and Communist China], we have had a very important relationship between our governments for a long time and also between the people. All kinds of links should be created, including through art. We are two old civilisations and we respect each other." I have time for one final question. What does de Villepin, the bridge-maker, think of the censorship of art in China? "Of course, I hate censorship and I believe that it's always a limitation and a weakness to accept censorship." The diplomat in him, however, cannot leave it at that: "But we have to understand that for some countries and leaders, at a certain moment, they fear the power of art, literature and painting. That shows how powerful art is. Art should not only use this capacity to shock or show new ways. It should also show that it is able to create links. Art should not only be a tool creating troubles and problems. It should also be a tool of reconciliation." With that, de Villepin gets up to greet his old friend, Myonghi, and steps out of the political sphere back into the art gallery, a space where he finds both inspiration and solace. Myonghi's exhibition "Fleeting Eternities" will run until April 12 at the Kwai Fung Hin Art Gallery, 20 Ice House Street, Central, tel: 2580 0058.