Between Bush and Iraq - Jacques Chirac

Shades of Charles de Gaulle, but he may need exit strategy

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Less than a year ago he was a lame duck, protected from corruption investigators only by the immunity of his office.

Today, French President Jacques Chirac has emerged as the voice of majority world opinion, urging patience in disarming Iraq and opposing US plans for imminent war.

Branded a "cheese-eating surrender monkey" by some Americans, Mr. Chirac has never been so popular at home. And the news this week that he has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize can only embolden him further.

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But his brash assertion of French leadership risks weakening the very institutions from which Paris derives its influence - the United Nations and the European Union, some commentators here are warning.

"Chirac feels strong, but that's a dangerous feeling because it could lead him to overplay his hand," says Guillaume Parmentier, head of the French Centre on the United States, a think tank here. "Frankly, I think he needs an exit strategy."

France's current insistence that it would oppose a second UN Security Council resolution authorizing an invasion of Iraq runs the risk that the US and Britain would launch a war anyway, making the Security Council irrelevant. The Council, where France wields the veto that goes with its permanent seat, is the only place where Paris enjoys equal weight with Washington.

At the same time, Chirac's outburst last Monday against Eastern European countries which had dared to sign pro-American statements - he called them "childish" and "irresponsible" - has deepened splits in the European Union and further soured relations with Britain, Washington's firmest European ally.

At the root of Chirac's moves on the international stage in recent weeks is his vision of a strong, united Europe, with France at its head, acting as a counterweight to the US in world affairs. "Any community with only one dominant power is always a dangerous one and provokes reactions," he told Time magazine in an interview this week. "That's why I favor a multipolar world in which Europe obviously has its place."

It was Charles de Gaulle, Chirac's hero, who first set out to bolster France's diminishing influence in the world by maintaining its independent nuclear strike capability, and playing both ends against the middle during the cold war.

Today, Chirac appears to be trying to play a similar role, this time between Washington and world opinion over the Iraqi crisis.

De Gaulle, observers here recall, blackballed Britain's initial efforts to join the European Union in the 1960s, fearing that London's "special relationship" with Washington would make it a Trojan horse for US interests in Europe. The pro-US statements issued by 13 eastern European nations, most of them candidates for EU membership in the next two years, presented Chirac with the prospect of a cavalry brigade of Trojan horses sweeping up from his rear.

The EU's coming expansion, from 15 to 25 members, is bound to dilute French influence in the organization, however new voting rules are drawn up. And French policymakers fear that if that dilution favors Eastern European nations that feel a debt of gratitude to Washington, it will be even harder to build a common front to balance US power in the world.

"Chirac's statements sounded to me like a sign of weakness rather than strength," says Gilles Delafon, co-author of a book about the French president. "He is nervous, because the more EU members there are, the easier it will be to divide them."

More immediately, Chirac's explosion has deepened divisions among current EU members. No sooner had he upbraided Poland, the Czech Republic, Romania, and others than British Prime Minister Tony Blair wrote them all a letter regretting that they had not been invited to the EU summit Monday that drew up a common position on the Iraq crisis. "How we in Europe handle this crisis will have profound implications for EU-US relations for generations to come," he wrote. "We must resolve it in a way that strengthens our partnership."

But if Chirac's lecture to his prospective EU partners was mainly jockeying for leverage, analysts here are less clear that his stance on Iraq is so opportunistic. "Chirac is voicing his real concern that the Middle East could be thrown into turmoil by a war," says Mr. Parmentier. "It is genuine." That turmoil, it is feared, could prompt increased terrorism against Western targets. If it did, France, with its 7 million Muslims, mostly of north African origin, would be particularly vulnerable.

French officials emphasize that Paris has never ruled out the use of force against Iraq, that France has never been a pacifist nation, and that they differ with Washington only on whether war is necessary now.

French opposition to US policy toward Iraq is nothing new. France withdrew from air patrols enforcing the no-fly zones in 1996, and Paris has long argued for a relaxation of economic sanctions against Baghdad, arguing that they only strengthened Saddam Hussein's grip on power.

The difference now, however, is that while Chirac and former US president Bill Clinton disagreed over Iraq, "they were always on the phone to each other, and both of them love debate," says Mr. Delafon. "Bush and Chirac don't have that relationship. Chirac thinks Bush is a zealot, and he hates extremists."

At the same time, Chirac's authoritarian streak, and his readiness to humiliate his opponents, threatens to isolate France in the delicate diplomatic maneuvering expected over the next week or so.

On the Security Council, France is not isolated: China and Russia share French reservations about an immediate war. The crunch will come, however, if the US and Britain present a second resolution, as President Bush has said he will do. Eighty-seven percent of the French public want Paris to veto such a resolution, pushing Chirac into an awkward corner. Casting such a veto would critically damage French relations with the US, its oldest ally. Not doing so would puncture Chirac's reputation at home and recall one of his nicknames - "la girouette," the weather vane.

But after 40 years in politics, including two stints as prime minister and eight years in the presidential palace, Chirac is a consummate political animal.

"In the end, a way will be found," predicts Delafon. "It will be a fudge, perhaps a hypocritical one, but it will allow France not to join in the war, but to join in reconstruction later."

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