- The Washington Times - Friday, July 2, 2004

Less than a month ago, it was adjudged the most brilliant speech of French President Chirac’s never-ending political career. U.S. senators present, from both parties, detected a major shift for the better in Franco-American relations. They concluded France’s diplomatic guerrilla resistance to the U.S. war on, and occupation of Iraq, had been called off.

The occasion was the 60th anniversary of the D-Day invasion of Normandy that began the liberation of France from Nazi German occupation. With a background panorama of almost 10,000 crosses and stars of David, hardened veterans of D-Day in their late 70s and early 80s wiped away tears as Mr. Chirac reminded his countrymen how much France owed to the United States and Britain — a debt never to be forgotten.

The senators apparently forgot anti-Americanism is de rigueur in French politics and that France and the United States, over the past 228 years, have been quarrelling and making up with tedious regularity.

The latest spate came at the NATO Istanbul summit. Mr. Chirac told President Bush to mind his own business and to butt out of Europe. What caused the unseemly outburst?

Mr. Bush had simply made the obvious geopolitical point that Turkey is an integral part of Europe and must become a member of the European Union. Left unsaid by Mr. Bush was the fear that Turkey — the only modern, democratic and secular Muslim state — if left out of EU, would fall prey to Muslim radicals. As a country of 70 million that straddles Europe, the Middle East and Asia Minor, any move toward Muslim fundamentalism would destabilize the entire region.

Mr. Chirac asked reporters how Mr. Bush would feel if France gave the U.S. advice on how to settle its problems with Mexico. If France had played a major role safeguarding Mexican interests, surely no one would object. So Mr. Bush responded with another speech pleading Turkey’s case for EU membership.. France, already saddled with 6 million North African Muslims, most of them jobless, fears a sudden influx of several million Turks looking for work all over EU countries. Some 2.4 million Turks already reside in Germany.

In quick succession at the NATO summit in Istanbul, where decisions must be unanimous, Mr. Chirac unsheathed his veto to slay Mr. Bush’s two key proposals. No sooner had NATO agreed to offer Iraq’s new interim government assistance in training its security forces than Mr. Chirac said France opposed any kind of NATO presence in Iraq. More than half of NATO’s members already have military boots on the ground in Iraq.

Next, Mr. Chirac vetoed the idea of using NATO’s new, 6,000-strong, rapid-response force, which includes a French contingent, to help secure the Afghan elections in the fall. The nattering French nabob of negativism earned the sobriquet of summit “killjoy” in Le Monde.

With hindsight, it is now clear Mr. Chirac’s D-Day kudos were for the “old” America that liberated France from Nazi occupation. His diplomatic concussion grenades were designed to stun Mr. Bush, who is seen by many Europeans as a bull that carries its own china shop.

Much of Mr. Chirac’s anti-Bush posturing stemmed from his own domestic predicament. His poll numbers have dropped precipitously from 50 percent a year ago to 35 percent — a nine-year low. He knows if he doesn’t win a third term as president in 2007, when he will be 74, he may have to face charges of corruption that date back to his stint as mayor of Paris in the 1980s. He also has a rival in his own party who has suddenly emerged as France’s most popular politician.

Nicolas Sarkozy, 49, is the son of a Hungarian refugee. For French headlines, he is simply “Sarko.” Mr. Chirac recently moved him from his job as interior minister, where he garnered national support by cracking down hard on crime, to the Finance Ministry, where the inevitable unpopular measures are bound to erode his national popularity.

A worried Mr. Chirac also gave Sarko an ultimatum. He cannot be the chief of a conservative party and a minister at the same time. Mr. Chirac improvised the new rule in a vain attempt to restrain a man who has made clear he will run for president in 2007.

Where Mr. Chirac’s opposition to Mr. Bush appeared to receive general, if quiet, assent was for the U.S. push for democracy in the Middle East. Most Europeans believe bullying Middle Eastern autocracies into becoming Western-style democracies by free elections will simply hasten the advent of politico-religious extremists, as it did in Algeria in 1991.

Mr. Bush firmly believes free elections in Saudi Arabia, other Gulf states, Syria, Iran and Egypt will sweep out today’s crop of autocrats. Allies say this view is convincingly contradicted by surveys in pro-Western Arab countries. They showed Osama bin Laden, the world’s most wanted terrorist, enjoying a greater degree of trust than Mr. Bush.

Arnaud de Borchgrave is editor at large of The Washington Times and of United Press International.

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