'Bulldozer' Chirac Skirts Around France's Job Loss

One year in office, French leader talks big, yet struggles

As French President Jacques Chirac ends his first year in office, he has quieted critics on one point: He is clearly a homme d'etat, or statesman, as well as a shrewd politician.

But if France was destined to take a back seat to Germany in Europe or to the United States in the post-cold-war world, this president did not get the message. And this new French resolve has often been at the expense of consultation with close friends.

"When the French president talks of Franco-German cooperation, it's often before he's talked to us," says a German diplomat. US diplomats are still simmering over what they see as a French effort to undercut their recent diplomacy in Lebanon.

No one doubted the president's political gifts. In 30 years of public life, he rebuilt the party of Gen. Charles de Gaulle, weathered two tough terms as prime minister, and overcame the odds to win the presidency a year ago May 7 - on his third try.

But along with raw political energy, President Chirac also brought to the office a reputation for volatility. "I open my mouth and wait to see what comes out," he told journalists in 1971 - an assessment that has dogged much of his public life. Critics questioned whether he could hold his own with world statesmen or develop a consistent foreign policy.

With his early decision to resume nuclear testing, strengthen world resolve on ethnic cleansing in Bosnia, and mount a French peace initiative in Lebanon, Chirac has made France's voice count in the world - or at least in the headlines.

At home, he has broken taboos. His decision last December to bring France back into NATO's military command challenged a guiding principle of French foreign policy: the quest for national independence from the American security umbrella.

He was also the first French president to break an official silence on crimes of collaboration with the Nazis during France's Vichy regime of World War II. The failure to protect Jewish deportees was the "collective fault" of the French nation, he said last July on the 53rd anniversary of one of the largest deportations.

Similarly, he denounced Europe and America's failure to protect United Nations "safe areas" in Bosnia, encouraging the use of force against the Serbs in Bosnia.

During the cold war, French presidents tried to enhance France's clout in the world by positioning France as a privileged interlocutor between the West and the Soviet Union. But Chirac more recently has emphasized France's ties with so-called pariah states, such as Iran and Iraq.

Pragmatism rules

Even as the US tried to turn up the heat on China over human rights abuses, Chirac welcomed Chinese Prime Minister Li Peng at the presidential palace last month, conspicuously avoiding public criticism on China's rights record while calling for French expansion into Chinese markets.

Within the United Nations Security Council, France has spoken in support of easing the embargo on Iraq. And during last month's shuttle diplomacy in Lebanon, French officials drew Iran into the discussions at a time when US and Israeli leaders were trying to keep the world's No. 1 supporter of terrorism at arm's length.

The thread that links these policies is what French officials call a spirit of "pragmatism."

Chirac is determined to defend its national interests in the world on the political, economic, cultural, and moral fronts, French officials close to the president say. "French foreign policy had aged, we hadn't confronted the challenges we needed to face."

President Clinton has made the defense of US commercial interests abroad a keystone of his foreign policy, these officials say. France needs to do the same.

According to a recent poll, 35 percent of French voters believe that the role of France in the world is getting stronger.

But like many statesmen before him, this president has found it harder to make a statement at home than abroad.

Read his lips

As a presidential candidate, Chirac campaigned on a promise to lower taxes and address the nation's "social fracture," including a 12 percent rate of unemployment. Since his election, taxes have increased by a total of nearly $20 billion and the unemployment rates have gone up.

At the same time, Chirac's approval ratings have dropped faster than any French president's since polls were recorded. While 64 percent of those polled said they were confident in Chirac in June 1995, only 44 percent say they are today.

"The president realized early on that conditions weren't yet right to keep his campaign promises," says an official close to the president. "The country was more deeply in debt than we thought, and the president didn't fully appreciate the pressure financial markets could impose. For example, for every one point increase in interest rates, we found we had to come up with $10 billion in new budget cuts."

In the last year, the government has cut $20 billion in spending as well as raising one of the world's highest sales taxes an additional two points, to 20.6 percent. "But the [public-transport] strikes in December wiped out all gains from the sales tax increase," the official adds.

French officials rarely use the term "Maastricht Treaty" in defending their budget cuts. But it is clearly their priority to adhere to the European deadline set by that 1992 treaty to reduce budget deficits to 3 percent of gross domestic product by 1999.

Chirac has tried to head off criticism of his first year in office by announcing his intention to begin cutting taxes by 1997, on the condition that the nation can make further deep budget cuts.

France needs a revolution in its thinking, "to pass from a culture of public assistance, laden with perverse side effects, to a culture of responsibility that is the only way to reduce the social fracture," the French president said in the daily Le Monde May 7.

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