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Chirac arrives at a crossroads

French political figure Bernard Kouchner, who served as UN administrator of postwar Kosovo, described anti-Americanism during the Clinton administration as the motor of French foreign policy. Kouchner said more recently that while French opposition to the Americans was often justified, "our manner of being opposed, making it a basis for everything, without any thought, is just stupid."
News analysis: Chirac arrives at a crossroads
John Vinocur/IHT International Herald Tribunem France, April 23, 2003

President has to decide whether to try to limit U.S. power

PARIS In a matter of days, President Jacques Chirac may be giving a good indication of how much he wants to make his four years left in office a crusade to limit American power, with himself in the role of leading global proselytizer.

Chirac can throw down an important card at a meeting next Tuesday of France, Germany, Belgium and Luxembourg (the only European countries willing to attend) that is meant to draw new outlines for an autonomous European military force.

If the discussions, described by the host, Belgium, as a summit meeting produce a project for something that looks like a rival or competitor to NATO, then Chirac will have chosen a collision.

There are Frenchmen who say Chirac and French foreign policy are now engaged by convictions so deep that no other course besides selective confrontation with the United States is possible. Others insist that Chirac is restrained by reality, the obvious limits of French means and influence, and in Europe the unmistakable absence of desire of a majority of a 25-member European Union to follow France's lead.

But an almost psychic issue is at hand. Beyond the foreseeable to-and-fro over a United Nations role in Iraq's reconstruction, Chirac has to decide on how he wants to sustain a vision of the United States as one of the world's primary problems - a notion hardly born in response to the actions of President George W. Bush, but specifically articulated through French policy since 1999, or the last four years of Chirac's presidency.

Pressing the concept through opposition to the American-led strike against Saddam Hussein, Chirac gained a kind of substance and admiration - at least among many of the war's opponents - unknown to him in a career that has been more than occasionally composed of near-scandal and low-trajectory politics.

At age 70, the issue for Chirac appears to be pressing on with an approach from which he takes enormous personal validation, while running the risk, alongside American power and potential for good, of possibly appearing a crank on a mission damaging to his country's place in the world.

The alternative would not be an about-face, but finding a rhetorical slot that would allow him to carry on verbally, without the aspects of the frontal clash in NATO and the United Nations of the past six months that arguably has hurt France more among its European partners than the United States.

The autonomous EU force under discussion in Brussels would be one, in theory at least, that could project military power in the manner of NATO or the Americans. Although there would be doubts about its masters' willingness to spend enough for the hardware, or to find the resolve to eventually pull the trigger, the force would give Chirac an army with a European name that on paper could raise EU security policy to something close to eye-level with the Americans.

In getting there, the redlines not to be crossed have been clearly established by NATO and the United States. They do not want the duplication on a European level of NATO's planning staff or headquarters. There must be no EU version of NATO's military decision-making center, called SHAPE.

According to a British official, a headquarters and planning staff was precisely what the Belgian foreign minister, Louis Michel, called for at an EU meeting last week as he set out what the official described as a possible smokescreen for the French. A phrase used to describe what NATO loyalists do not want emerging from the four-party meeting is "something with a name that doesn't suggest it's subordinate to the alliance."

Yet, an administration official in Washington did not see a provocation, or the substance of a major new clash at hand in the Brussels meeting "unless Chirac wants it."

Rather, the official, who suggested after Chirac's re-election a year ago that he would tread more of a Gaullist line in foreign policy in years ahead, and never regarded France's participation in a strike against Saddam as likely, said he thought of Chirac currently being in a phase of "rhetorical adjustment."

That means trying to improve bilateral relations with the United States while refitting his approach to asserting a battered French leadership role in Europe.

The official gave as an example Chirac's "businesslike" telephone conversation with Bush last week, while pointing out that at the same time Chirac was reiterating at the EU's Athens summit meeting, albeit "with a lighter touch," his earlier warning to new members from Eastern Europe that in the future they must behave as Europeans.

From an American point of view, Chirac's subtext was that France held the right to define for the EU, as opposed to new members with strong Euro-Atlantic inclinations, its foreign policy and security attitudes. In this light, the official said he could not conceive of a change in a French foreign policy that is in essence anti-American.

The background is decades of French opposition to U.S. policy, but with a specific reference point in 1999.

Early that year, Chirac called for the UN General Assembly's adoption of a set of principles for an international order "excluding unilateral temptations." The list was never presented for a vote, but Chirac's foreign minister at that time, Hubert Vedrine - French governance places supreme authority for foreign and defense policy in the hands of the president - defined the United States at that point as a primary international problem, tending to "inadmissible" hegemony and unilateralism.

If anything for the French, this description has since been amplified through the war in Iraq.

While Bill Clinton still occupied the White House, a French political figure like Bernard Kouchner, who served as UN administrator of postwar Kosovo, described anti-Americanism as the motor of French foreign policy. Kouchner, whose approval rating leaped to 66 percent last week after months of criticizing the French position on Iraq, said more recently that while French opposition to the Americans was often justified, "our manner of being opposed, making it a basis for everything, without any thought, is just stupid."

Guy Sorman, another Frenchman, one with good relations with Chirac, also calls anti-Americanism the single constant of French foreign policy, and now insists there has been an intensification of what he calls Chirac's anti-Americanism.

Sorman, an essayist, described Chirac in November 2001, after participating with him and a small group of French intellectuals in a discussion at the Elysee Palace, as "the most anti-American of all of us." Sorman spoke publicly then, after Chirac visited the United States in the wake of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, of a president who regarded the American leadership as devoid of historical sense, lacking in patience, nuance and profundity - attributes Chirac presumably considers as his own.

In March, Sorman was invited to accompany Chirac on an official visit to Algeria, which was portrayed here as a triumphal demonstration of Chirac's links to the Arab world, although the crowds that mobbed the president were essentially clamoring for visas that would let them leave their dictatorship for France.

Now, Sorman says: "Chirac is persuaded he's right on America. I persist and confirm what I said about his anti-Americanism. A year and a half later, I realized I was more right than I had imagined at first.

"Pay no attention to what he might say about his affection for the United States from his student days. This is not the question. His view is something deep, deep within him. For Chirac, the Americans understand nothing."

Indeed, none of this negative vision appears marked by the personal or the petty. It is hard politics, made more complex by Chirac's unfailing affability, a 30-year reputation for changeableness and, now, his experience at being taken for the first time at home and abroad as a man with a view of the world.

Undoubtedly, the Iraq episode has both enhanced Chirac's reputation for maneuvering and leveraging France's role, and has made puzzling him out an increasingly important job for France's allies. Parallel to this it also raises questions, perhaps for Chirac as well, about France's needs in a time of growing economic misery to refocus its energies from the single low-yield effort of tripping up the Americans.

In projecting an answer, the Americans may actually have a more incisive and intimate view of Chirac than is usually known.

Every three weeks for the period from 1989 to 1995, according to a book about Chirac by Raphaelle Bacque, the Elysee Palace correspondent of Le Monde, Chirac flew to New York for sessions with a media coach helping him in developing a television style. The coach and the politician, Bacque said, went over Chirac's approach to forthcoming speeches, media events and trips.

The coach was Roger Ailes, a former adviser to George H.W. Bush, the father of the president. Ailes is now chairman of Fox News, the broadcaster characterized here over the last months as the Bush administration's most important media ally, and the great villain in creating an American caricature of Chirac as a man of treachery and ingratitude.

The International Herald Tribune telephoned Ailes in New York, saying it hoped to ask him about his impressions of Chirac, whether they fit his network's portrayal of the French president, and the two men's financial arrangement as tutor and student. No return call has been received.

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