[Overseasview]The diplomatic legacy of Jacques ChiracJacques Chirac is ready to leave the Elysee. He was elected president of the French republic in 1995 and reelected in 2002. What will his legacy be in international affairs?
Chirac’s image is generally positive around the world. French people may have mixed opinions on his two mandates regarding home politics, particularly on economic and social issues, where there is some disappointment. But there is a strong majority that is happy with his diplomacy.
He has kept the Fifth Republic’s traditional international policy, which was initiated by de Gaulle and continued by Mitterrand. France’s independence from superpowers, its active role on the international stage, its part in European construction and its special links with Southern countries are the backbone of this international policy.
Jacques Chirac’s first two decisions as president were ironically in contradiction with his present image. He first decided to resume nuclear tests that were ended by Mitterrand in 1992. This has infuriated the entire world. France was perceived as selfish and arrogant, far from being the champion of multilateralism and peace that Chirac was so proud of at the end of his second term. The second decision, made by the end of 1996, consisted of reintegrating France into NATO, which de Gaulle had shockingly opted out of. This gambit failed for two reasons. The first reason was the United States’ refusal to exchange French reintegration into NATO for Europeanization of the Atlantic Alliance. The second reason was that the Left took control of Parliament in 1997 (which it retained until 2002), forcing Chirac to a “cohabitation,” which gave most of the power to the government led by the socialist Lionel Jospin. His government was very opposed to any reintegration. It would have been hard to imagine at that time that Chirac would later become the main opponent of Washington.
For sure, the most memorable of Chirac’s international positions remains his opposition to the Iraq war.
A majority of governments around the world were opposed to the war. Almost all public opinions were scared of the war’s outcome and its side effects. But American sentiment was extremely strong due to its perception of being rightful and serving a just cause (unseating a tyrant) after having been attacked on September 11, 2001. On top of that, never in history has a single country been as powerful as the United States was in this affair, yet Chirac still proved to be courageous and clear-sighted ― courageous, for daring to show opposition to the peerless international competitor, the United States, and clearsighted, for predicting the coming catastrophes after a rapid military victory (the widening of the gap between the Western and Muslim worlds, the mistake of attacking Iraq before having reached any progress on the Palestinian issue, the destabilization of the Middle East, the development of terrorism and so on). He was clearsighted also in having understood that the world was not unipolar, even under U.S. primacy. Despite its power and its determination, the United States would not have been able to impose its views. Had France been isolated, it could not have held its position.
But isolation was for Washington, not for Paris. For sure, France was not the sole country that could have taken the initiative to say no to Washington. Germany or Russia or any other nation could have taken this role. The courage displayed by Chirac has given him great popularity in almost every country, except in the U.S. and in Israel. This popularity was not limited to the Arab or Muslim worlds. People were grateful to see a Western leader, in the name of respect of international law and prohibition of war, who embodied the opposition to a policy perceived as aggressive, dangerous and unfair. Jacques Chirac was the one who said “No” to Uncle Sam as de Gaulle and Mitterrand had done before and he did this out of respect for the same universal values that were invoked by Washington to legitimize its policy in the first place.
In the same light, Chirac was one of the most active leaders supporting the Palestinian cause after the death of the Oslo process and the resumption of the Intifada (Sept. 2000) once the White House broke contact with Arafat to follow quite blindly the Israeli government, whatever its decisions. On the Iraqi issue as well as on the Palestinian problem, the French preference was to make anything possible to fight against the theory of the “clash of civilizations.” It was the “mother of all battles” for Chirac, his utmost preoccupation.
This could be explained by Chirac’s personality. He is probably the least Western-oriented, inward-looking leader. He is truly curious of other civilizations including Asian, Arab and Russian ones. He is more open to other cultural horizons than most of his counterparts are.
The main failure for Jacques Chirac was the defeat of the referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty. He chose to have a popular vote, yet had the decision been given to the National Congress the “ayes” would have won by a large margin. But it was difficult not to give the floor to voters, since it was the same way in 1992 for the Maastricht Treaty. Chirac probably believed he had the possibility to win something on the internal political stage. Instead, it was the reverse and the success of the “no” vote. But more importantly, France, which has always been considered to be the European locomotive, was the country that stopped the train of new European institutions. Since then, Europe seems to be waiting in line and France a little bit less central in Europe.
The main task of the new president will be to give European construction a new start.
One could also notice Chirac’s personal involvement in the preservation of the environment and the fight against climate change, notably with a widely popular speech at the Earth Summit in Johannesburg in 2002. Chirac also pleaded steadily for a North-South alignment, notably with the creation (a joint proposal with President Lula of Brazil) of a voluntary tax on airplane tickets to help the fight against AIDS.
It could be perceived as limited in its scope and its goal, but it is the first step towards creating an international taxation in favor of poor countries and could lead to a larger application in the near future.
Chirac has a real passion for Asia. He has a true and deep knowledge of its civilizations. Unfortunately, this knowledge has not led to a deeper cooperation with Asian countries. Due to the surge of Asian countries on the world stage, it will be the task of the new president to improve France’s presence and activity in Asia.
If only one aspect of Chirac’s presidency will be remembered, among its successes and failures and between its internal and international legacies, it will most certainly be his opposition to the Iraqi war.
*The writer is director of the Institute for International and Strategic Relations in Paris.
BY Pascal Boniface