WASHINGTON, Feb. 4 (UPI) — French President Jacques Chirac, like most recent occupants of the Elysee Palace, constantly feels the need to measure himself against his great predecessor, le grand Charles. Never has it been more clear just how pitifully Chirac fails to meet that grandiose standard.
Forty years ago, when President John F. Kennedy was rallying support from his allies during the Cuban missile crisis, Charles de Gaulle waved away Kennedy’s offer to send a personal envoy to Paris bearing prints of the famous aerial photographs showing the presence of Soviet missiles on the island.
“France does not need evidence to take the word of the president of the United States,” De Gaulle said.
Chirac cannot even be satisfied with the clear evidence that Saddam Hussein has failed to meet the obligations imposed upon him by U.N. Resolution 1441. The Security Council did not say that the U.N. inspectors would be sent in looking until they found something. They demanded that Iraq prove its compliance to the satisfaction of the inspectors, and this Iraq has palpably failed to do.
So what is to be done about France, which only keeps its special U.N. status as a permanent member of the Security Council (with a veto) because of De Gaulle’s wartime efforts?
Realists in foreign policy tend to be pessimists. So Richard Perle, the former assistant secretary of defense who today probably wields more influence as chairman of the Pentagon’s Policy Advisory Board, sees France as a lost cause. At a seminar of Iraqi exiles and U.S. security experts in Washington this week Perle suggested France was no longer an ally and warned that the U.S. and its friends in Europe “must develop a strategy to contain our erstwhile ally or we will not be talking about a NATO alliance.”
But then there are romantics in foreign policy who tend to be optimists, and against all the immediate evidence, Britain’s Tony Blair and U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell continue to trust that France might just come good in the end.
In their eyes, Chirac may be giving a virtuoso display of the erotic arts of diplomacy, spinning out with infinite guile and delicious restraint the process of seduction.
Now he advances, now he retreats, teasing with Gallic subtlety the stolid White House into the quivering thrills of delayed gratification until — just as the tanks begin to roll — a single bugle sends the strains of the Marseillaise across the desert battlefields and the Foreign Legion parachutes in.
Saddam tumbles, and George W Bush crumples with relief.
If that be the Parisian scenario, then the foreplay has hardly begun, despite the dangerously high expectations of Colin Powell’s presentation of the American case against Saddam Hussein at the United Nations Wednesday. The French will wait at least until the next report by Hans Blix and the U.N. inspectors on Feb. 14, St. Valentine’s Day. Paris may well want to wait even longer to another Blix report in the first week of March. As any experienced seducer would say, why rush the pleasure?
From Chirac’s point of view, everything is going just fine. The world waits on his word. France is back in the driving seat. And he is even picking up some handsome tips, gigolo-style, along the way.
Blair, whose eagerness to be seen as a good European should never be under-estimated, decided last week to award France’s Thales group with one-third of the $10 billion contract to build Britain’s two new aircraft carriers. He even suggested that while Britain’s own BAE Systems (formerly British Aerospace) should be the lead contractor, they should build the French design.
This handsome gratuity was not enough for Chirac. He may be waiting some more tangible symbols of American regard, like quiet guarantees that the development contracts signed with Saddam’s Iraq by France’s Total-Fina-Elf oil giant will be honored by Saddam’s eventual successors. He may even — though this would be unusual — be acting on the highest and most unsullied of principles. Or Perle might have been right all along to say that “France is no longer the ally it once was.”
Whether Perle is right or not about the French, it might make sense to treat them as if he were. Bush’s concession of a U.N. process has not brought Chirac round. Blair’s little gratuity has not bought his support. What the experienced seducer most fears is the thought of rejection, the dismaying realization that his old skills no longer work and that his game is up. Maybe that’s the way to treat the elderly libertine who now tries to fill the shoes of de Gaulle.