LONDON — A year ago, he was dropping in the polls as he faced a tough re-election fight. Allegations of political and financial scandal surrounded him. His rival for the presidency accused him of being old and tired. Five years of having ruled with a government of the opposing party had marginalized him.
Now, the transformation of Jacques Chirac into the darling of opponents of a war in Iraq, a figure who strides the world stage as the prime counterweight to U.S. President George W. Bush has been astounding. And it is not only over Iraq that the 70-year-old French president is cutting a dash.
In the European Union, he has made clear that France will break the budget-deficit rules of the euro zone so that he can carry through spending plans despite falling growth that is reducing tax receipts. He ambushed Britain and other proponents of reform of the expensive European farm policy by forming an alliance with Germany to put off changes to a system that greatly benefits French farmers. Elsewhere, he has annoyed critics of Zimbabwe by inviting President Robert Mugabe to a Franco-Africa summit in Paris.
Chirac is also keeping his finger on the pulse of domestic affairs, conferring regularly with ministers and making his views known on everything from civil service numbers to the defense of the French cinema against American films.
Chirac — known early on as “Le Bulldozer” — has always been known for his hyperactivity. His crushing election victory last year followed by pro-Chirac victories in the National Assembly has given the president a domestic political from which to engage in high-level international activity.
The French opposition is divided, and hardly criticizes any of his foreign-policy initiatives. As for the president, he reportedly feels that, having been handed such a huge majority as a result of the first round in the presidential election — when the nation’s voters united against the far right — he owes it to the country to act as a leader above party, seeking to embody the whole nation.
But there is another strand that runs through the current French activism on the world stage. Looking back to its revolution of 1789 and the establishment of a republic with a set of progressive and humanist values, France has long believed that it has a particular model of society to show to the world, and a moral leadership to exercise.
Given the vagaries of history, and somber economic and political experiences in the 1990s, that leadership has often proved hard to demonstrate in recent years. But the crisis over Iraq is now providing an ideal stage, with Chirac intent on fully playing his role.
Since Charles de Gaulle founded the Fifth Republic in 1958, French leaders have always been keen to be taken seriously by Washington. They have insisted on their right to differ, whether it was over the Vietnam War or in de Gaulle’s decision to take his country out of NATO’s integrated military structure. In doing so, the French hoped to put themselves at the head of a group of like-minded states following a non-American path.
This has not necessarily meant systematic opposition to Washington — de Gaulle backed U.S. President John Kennedy in the Cuban missile crisis and long-time Socialist President Francois Mitterrand supported the deployment of American Pershing missiles in Europe in the 1980s. Chirac, who worked in a soda fountain in the United States as a student, insists that he is not anti-American. He was the first foreign leader to fly to see U.S. President George W. Bush after the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
But it is clear that, on the back of his election victories last year, Chirac has found what he considers his international vocation at last. Germany, where Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder could only squeeze a narrow re-election win last autumn and is now deep in political and economic trouble, has been content to follow France’s lead. Russian President Vladimir Putin was cooperative on a recent visit to Paris. France thinks that it sees eye to eye with Beijing. If Britain remains impervious to Chirac’s arguments on Iraq, the French can always reflect on London’s special relationship with Washington and dismiss British Prime Minister Tony Blair as Bush’s poodle.
Where this will leave Chirac and France if there is a successful war on Iraq is quite another question. U.S. reaction to France’s policies risks causing long-term damage to the relationship between Paris and Washington. Hawks in the Bush administration are scathing in their denunciation of the “old” Europe personified by France. Economically, French companies had been hoping for big oil contracts in Iraq; these could be in jeopardy if a postwar regime leans toward the U.S.
The British still hope that, as happened in the 1991 Persian Gulf War, Paris will end up falling into line — it has not escaped notice that France’s only aircraft carrier has headed for the eastern Mediterranean, not far from the potential war zone. But with his domestic public heavily weighted against fighting and the approbation of antiwar opinion round the globe, Chirac is unlikely to be deflected from his basic aim of making France’s voice — and his own — felt as powerfully as possible. Whatever happens over Iraq, the Gallic bulldozer is not going to pull back on that.
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