UN / Iraq The emperor of Europe
A statesman with a new mission: Jacques Chirac, embroiled in a power struggle over Iraq with US President George W. Bush, is trying to achieve the Gallic dream a Europe that acts independently of the United States, under the leadership of, naturally, the French.
Does he truly believe in this? Not too long ago, a worried Jacques Chirac was busy spreading gloom among visitors to the Elysée Palace. "He is convinced that things will explode in February," reported the president of the National Assembly, Jean-Louis Debré, after meeting with the French president.
The French president has already succeeded in thoroughly upsetting the American timeframe for a military attack against Iraq. And his hopes are gradually turning into certainty. Chirac believes that he is the only person who can succeed in keeping the peace. As Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin has said, Chirac is "standing tall in the face of history."
Chirac is a changed man. France is no longer ruled by an easy-going, often frivolous, occasionally cynical, and always volatile opportunist, but rather by a prudent and focused statesman, one who has long since grown beyond his role as simply the leader of his country. During his first term in office, from 1995 to 2002, a period in which he was sometimes called a bulldozer and at other times ridiculed as being a liar, he suffered from a chronic lack of believability, which almost cost him his reelection. But now, in his show of defiance against George W. Bush, Chirac has acquired a moral stature that he himself believes has elevated him to a world-class leader.
In his conversation with the French president, Debré recognized that "Chirac, after having won the election, finds himself in the psychological position of one who has been redeemed, and who thanks God every day for the reprieve he has been granted." In fact, both his words and his actions have taken on a virtually messianic quality, as if the fate of the planet depended on Chirac's manliness. In his reproach of opponent Bush, a man lusting for his own baptism by fire, Chirac says that "not having shed blood is an important feat in the life of a statesman."
More than 80 percent of the French people support Chirac's call for a peaceful solution to the Iraq crisis. Not a single party and not one newspaper has opposed him. And after last weekend, he now knows that global public opinion is also on his side. "Vive la France," were the words printed on banners as close to ten million people marched through 600 cities throughout the world to protest Bush' plans to go to war against Iraq.
The mass demonstrations strengthened the French president in his conviction that Washington could not be allowed to dictate the "new world order" already heralded by Bush' father. As the leader of an "old and decorated" nation, Chirac believes in his historic sense of mission to rise against the unipolar world of superpower USA in an exemplary act of resistance, and to dispute its right to be the sole arbiter of war and peace at the beginning of the third millennium.
At the same time, Chirac is also trying to accomplish the old Gallic dream of placing Europe, with France and Germany as its driving force, on par with the United States. If Chirac is successful in his power struggle with Bush, the EU will emerge as a new superpower, with Chirac as its undisputed spokesman. According to his chief diplomatic advisor, Maurice Gourdault-Montagne, "he is the dean at every summit, the man with the most experience, the one who knew the predecessors of the predecessors of his counterparts."
Anyone who crosses Chirac risks incurring the patriarch's wrath. British Prime Minister Tony Blair called Chirac an "ill-mannered child" after he had the audacity to criticize the Franco-German agriculture compromise. Last Monday, in a calculated attack, Chirac also referred to the Eastern European candidates for EU membership who had signed statements of solidarity with the United States as "ill-mannered" and "childish." In reprimanding the "thoughtless" and "clueless" Poles, Czechs, Hungarians, Romanians and Bulgarians, he said: "I believe they have missed a good opportunity to keep their mouths shut."
And then the French president even threatened with the possibility of using his veto powers, as France has already done in the United Nations vis-à-vis the United States. He reminded the candidates that their entry into the EU must be ratified unanimously by the old member states, a ratification that in some countries requires a referendum.
In Chirac's opinion, the former Eastern bloc countries are in the same position Germany was in for several decades following the war: They want to avoid, at all costs, having to decide between America and a Europe à la française. To Chirac's satisfaction, Gerhard Schröder has been the first German chancellor to have made this choice and was promptly forced to relinquish the leadership role to the French. Chirac holds the steering wheel while Schröder sits in the passenger seat.
The stinging remarks about the EU candidates clearly indicated that France will not allow anyone to question its dominance in the EU. Chirac must have felt majestically insulted by the fact that, of all countries, the poor cousins from central and eastern Europe were the ones who dared to assail this view.
Chirac, the emperor of Europe? His coronation would certainly represent a triumph over the leader of the US empire, which is why he intends to stick to his course of "enlightened steadfastness" (in the words of Jacques Barrot, the party whip of the governing party, the UMP) against America.
His persistent resistance has thrown the White House off-balance. These days, President Bush looks pale and exhausted, and his voice has lost its characteristic confidence.
Last week, US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld reported to his commander-in-chief that the military buildup in the Gulf was complete. But without the approval of the Security Council, according to French diplomats, Bush, in consideration for his most reliable ally Tony Blair, no longer dares to take the big step. In the chambers of the Security Council in New York, Chirac and his "warrior of peace" Villepin have the two proponents of war in a stranglehold. The French president has already announced: "There is no need for a second resolution today. France could do nothing but oppose it."
However, Bush and Blair have announced that they will present the wording of a resolution today, possibly one containing a hidden ultimatum for Iraq. In that case, France could present a counter-resolution to extend and strengthen UN inspections. Chirac and Villepin are confident that with such a resolution they will be able to keep the majority of the 15 Security Council members on their side.
"As long as we are able to report progress, I see no reason why we should discontinue the inspections," says weapons inspector Mohammed el Baradei, while Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak, as an Arab spokesman, says: "None of us is in favor of a war against Iraq."
Bulgaria, in the wake of Chirac's rude criticisms, senses that it would be forced to pay dearly for saying yes to Bush. During the French-African summit in Paris at the end of the last week, Chirac not just the emperor of Europe, but also the patriarch of Africa committed the entire continent of Africa to his position. The 45 heads and state and government leaders in attendance unanimously supported France' demand for the peaceful demilitarization of Iraq. Three of these countries Angola, Guinea and Cameroon currently hold seats on the Security Council. Even before the summit, during an open discussion in the UN, only one of about 60 speakers placed himself firmly in the US camp. As if to demonstrate that, according to Chirac's wish, "the hour of war shall be stopped," Paris dispatched two unarmed Mirage IV reconnaissance planes to the Gulf last Friday to support the UN inspectors with aerial photography. In truth, explained Chirac, Iraq does not represent a "real and immediate danger" today.
The UN inspectors, according to Chirac, should be able to convince themselves of just that, and without pressure or deadlines. However, Chirac fears that Saddam Hussein, and not Bush, could still frustrate France' plans by "some foolishness." The French are afraid that powerful peace movements around the world could prompt Saddam Hussein to draw incorrect conclusions. Both Arab and Russian diplomats on the Tigris have insistently warned the Iraqi leadership that only a demonstrative show of voluntary cooperation with the UN inspectors could permanently block the path to war.
One of the scenarios that Iraq's neighbors have proposed to high-ranking government officials looks like this: President Hussein finally makes up his mind to give a televised address, in which he calls upon the "great people of Iraq" to help bring to light any remaining "overlooked" stockpiles of chemical and biological weapons, so that palpable results can be achieved even before Hans Blix' next report on March 1. The chief weapons inspector has also exerted his own pressure: He intends to demand that Baghdad destroy its Samud-2 rockets and, most likely, its production facilities for rocket engines.
President Bush recently threatened that "the game is over." But, as Chirac's chief diplomat Villepin declares time and again, "history has not yet been written." The two men are confident that they will win the game in the end, as long as Saddam acts rationally and curbs his rhetoric.
The French president also knows that if war is to be avoided he must help Bush save face. For this reason, he intends to effusively thank the US president in a public address, crediting the decisive military buildup with having convinced Saddam to back down, to cooperate with the UN inspectors, and thus to give peace a chance.
In doing so, Chirac would certainly like to send Bush on his way with a motto coined by French philosopher Blaise Pascel: "Justice is powerless without power."
ROMAIN LEICK, BERNHARD ZAND