Why did Jacques Chirac got back on the usual track of the transatlantic relationship so quickly? Germany, uneasy with Chancellor Schröeder's position, had preceded him in lining up with Washington. 2005 was then a terrible year for the President: the negative result of the European Constitution referendum (in May) greatly reduced the authority that France had regained in Europe; earlier, the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri (in February) had led Jacques Chirac to seek close collaboration with the Bush administration to break the Syrian regime. The Franco-American couple reconciled over this issue, and reached a new level of intimacy.
At the same time, France experienced a dropout with Germany - which, under the impetus of Gerhard Schröeder, undertook serious reforms. Dominique de Villepin's prime ministership (2005-2007) resulted in spectacular social movements. In the eyes of other international actors, the prestige acquired in the Third World from the Iraqi affair was not enough to offset the effects of a certain economic and social downgrading in France.
Beyond all these factors, the Iraqi affair and its consequences should be considered consistent with Jacques Chirac's action, or at least with a set of broad guidelines that in fact make his foreign policy coherent.
Jacques Chirac was a European - a "European of reason" ("Européen de raison"), says Jean-Marc de la Sablière, his diplomatic adviser whose very enlightening book Dans les coulisses du Monde (Backstages of the world) deserves to be (re)read. He had supported the "yes" vote in Maastricht (1992) - thus turning the page on his previous anti-European positions that he had recklessly taken in 1978 ("the Cochin call", his famous Eurosceptic call to his fellow-countrymen). At the Nice Summit in December 2000, while defending voting arrangements at the European Council in line with France's interests, he sought to adapt the functioning of the European system to the EU's enlargement. He did not oppose enlargement to the East - which, having taken place during the period of cohabitation, was the subject of a consensus of the political class in France. He was keen, without illusion, to see the beginning of a European defence. After Iraq, there was no question of him maintaining a permanent division of Europe.
With regard to Germany, Jacques Chirac followed the policy of understanding of his predecessors, the Iraqi affair having sealed his proximity with Gerhard Schröeder. Perhaps it is in the relationship with America that we can best see the true stature of President Chirac at work. Upon his arrival at the Elysée (1995), he and John Major demanded a change in the nature of the allies' engagement in Bosnia - at that time trapped in an almost dishonorable UN peacekeeping mission. It may have been then his "best hour". He also imposed a final French nuclear test campaign - despite the reluctance of the Clinton administration and many others. He then took the Americans to Kosovo. If we are surprised by the closeness of his cooperation with the Bush administration since 2005 on Lebanese affairs, it is because we tend to forget that President Chirac had worked closely with Clinton on the Balkans - sometimes discussing NATO airstrike plans with his American counterpart every inch of the way - and indeed on other issues such as Palestine.
His immediate successors - Mr. Sarkozy and Mr. Holland - perhaps due to the evolution of American politics and Barack Obama's Olympian aloofness - lost the trend of a certain "French influence", through the personal role of the President, on American decision-makers. The Iraqi affair illustrates that Chirac was able to oppose the Americans as well as settle with them according to our interests and circumstances.
Finally, another common thread, undoubtedly the most important one: Jacques Chirac was the first French President of the post-Cold War era. In this sense, his legacy is more relevant than that of François Mitterrand. Chirac's personal equation, his intimate compass, predisposed him to understand a world where China, India and some Asian countries would regain their natural weight; his personal interests also brought him to Africa. He was more comfortable than others in the new universe because he saw it not through an ideological prism ("Third Worldism" or on the contrary the defence of liberal values), but from the perspective of cultures and history. His relationship with Yeltsin and especially Putin were inspired by this same consideration for models of civilization different from the European or Western model.