- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 12, 2003

WASHINGTON, Feb. 12 (UPI) — Last Friday, just before he precipitated the gravest NATO crisis in a generation, French President Jacques Chirac called in a small and trusted group of French journalists for an off-the-record discussion.

He spoke of his great predecessor Charles De Gaulle, and his "principled courage" in standing up against American dominance in the 1960s. Chirac went on to suggest that the Iraq crisis had provoked the emergence of "a trans-European public opinion," that was suspicious of war, committed to the United Nations. The opinion polls in Britain, Spain and Italy, Chirac noted, supported his call for more inspections, rather than the pro-American stance of the political leaders of those three countries.

Chirac, noted one of those present, "sees himself acting in a state of political grace. Unlike German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder who is politically very weak, Chirac faces no effective political opposition in the National Assembly. His Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and his Minister of the Interior Nicolas Sarkozy are highly popular. And in the making of this policy, which puts France once more at the center of world affairs, he is surrounded by men he trusts."

This is true. French policy is now run entirely by Team Chirac. France's foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, used to be Chirac's top aide in the presidential palace. The key French ambassadors, Jean-Marc de La Sablire at the United Nations and Jean-David Levitte in Washington, both served in Chirac's office as foreign policy advisers. Even the head of the French Army's general staff, Gen. Henri Bentegeat, used to be Chirac's personal military aide.

The danger is not that these are Yes-men, but that Chirac is hearing very few contrary points of view these days, except when he sees Tony Blair or reads the extracts from the U.S. press that his staff prepares each day.

Unlike Germany, where the political opposition that much of the press thunder against Schroeder for risking the Atlantic alliance on which Germany has so long depended, the French press is almost slavishly supportive of Chirac. Even the traditional center-left press, from Le Monde and Liberation to Le Nouvel Observateur, are against Bush's war.

Chirac stressed to his chosen journalists on Friday that France stood for certain timeless values, among them the difference between NATO as an alliance of free states and the old Warsaw Pact, of so many Soviet puppets. France had strong arguments that world opinion should consider, he insisted. Iraq presents no immediate danger to justify a war, and can be contained by more intrusive inspections; and a war against an Arab state is exactly what al Qaida leader Osama bin Laden wants.

Even in private and off-the-record sessions, Chirac does not openly talk of the need to take the American superpower down a peg or two, although he has used the term "contre-poids," or counterweight, to describe Europe as a balancing force against an over-mighty and unrestrained America. And yet he went out of his way last Friday to stress the ties that bound France and the United States together, ties he said that would remain long after the Iraq crisis was confined to the history books.

Chirac, in his final term in office, and vindicated by the massive majority he won last June against Jean-Marie le Pen, and backed by a big majority in Parliament for the center-right coalition he created (it is even called, after him, the Union for a Presidential majority), feels the mantle of history upon him.

Although only his election victory saved him from a nasty prospect of criminal proceedings for corruption, he now considers himself Europe's elder statesman. Perhaps, in his more grandiose moments, he sees himself as the man whose wisdom saved the world from war, and saved the Americans from themselves.

In Washington, the policy-makers and the think-tank experts read Chirac differently. They see his as a classic cynical French opportunist, waiting to ensure the price is right in oil concessions before jumping at the last moment aboard the American bandwagon for war, to be sure of a share of the spoils.

They may be wrong. The political price would be high for Chirac. The Nouvel Observateur cites a new poll saying that if Chirac did this, 47 percent of his voters would "have a degraded idea of their president."

Polls can be massaged. There are always new facts in politics to justify a change in policy. Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, by saying that Iraq's refusal to cooperate is the issue, rather than more inspectors, is already building an escape hatch, if Chirac were to need one.

But for the moment, with Schroeder hanging on his every word, with Russian President Vladmir Putin in his office agreeing with Chirac's policies, with China's president on the phone saying he too thinks the inspectors deserve more time, the world seems to be rallying to Chirac. It is a heady experience, unaccustomed for any French president since the days Charles De Gaulle. No wonder Chirac thinks and talks of him so often.

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