Between Bush and Iraq - Jacques Chirac
Shades of Charles de Gaulle, but he may need exit strategy
Less than a year ago he was a lame duck, protected from corruption investigators only by the immunity of his office.Skip to next paragraph
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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.
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.