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Jacques Chirac – The Explorer of the Multipolar World

BLOG - 4 October 2019

The French people hold on to a strong moment of Jacques Chirac’ foreign policy, a moment of consensus, of national pride, undoubtedly in line with the image that this old country has of itself in its collective unconscious: the "No" to the American intervention in Iraq.

Curiously enough - unless we consider that attitude and panache are more important to us than action and efficiency - there is little attention paid to the way in which France subsequently managed this great clash with the United States on the Iraqi affair. Yet, if we look back at this episode, it actually leaves an impression of unfinished business. Moreover, this feeling of incompleteness may apply to Chirac's foreign policy as a whole - the great internationalist whose assessment remains surprisingly relevant for today's France.

What were Jacques Chirac's motives in 2002-2003? As many have pointed out, the French President had fought in Algeria. Over the years, he had acquired certain knowledge of the Middle East. He was convinced that any Western military intervention in the region could only cause endless imbalances. This conviction was also undoubtedly the result of a sense of empathy with the Third World that Chirac and other politicians of his generation cultivated in response to our colonial past. As important was also the desire to resist American unilateralism. Chirac was not anti-American. Simply, he feared the hegemony of the US’s "hyperpower" ("hyperpuissance"), as coined by Hubert Védrine in the 1990s. He believed in the need for a multipolar world with certain rules: "multilateralism".

One day, historians will be surprised by the vehemence with which Chirac's France opposed the American will. It would have been possible to simply abstain from voting in the United Nations Security Council on the resolution legalizing American intervention; thus averting the deep division of Europe and sparing the UN from American wrath. Instead, we campaigned vigorously alongside Germany (at that time as a non-permanent member of the Security Council), Russia and China. We can even say that we have taken the lead in this campaign. Looking back on this period and on its atmosphere, let us put forward a hypothesis: when Chirac understood that Chancellor Schröeder would not give in to Washington's pressures, an old Gaullist dream finally came true; between America and France, for the first time on a major issue, Germany sided with France. Together with Russia and China, the four constituted a "veto" cartel that would have opposed a resolution that the United States and the United Kingdom finally abandoned.

The attitude adopted by President Chirac gained unanimity within French public opinion - to say the least. In the face of the Bush administration’s hubris, the President and his Minister of Foreign Affairs Dominique de Villepin, embodied in the eyes of the French population the necessary defense of principles and the voice of reason.

Neither France nor its allies were successful in stopping the Bush administration from invading Iraq. However, France gained immense prestige from its position of resistance in many countries. A spectacular example of this is the warm welcome Chirac received during a trip to Algiers in March 2003. We can thus raise the following question: how did the French government capitalize on this momentum? Dominique de Villepin, among others in Paris, advocated perpetuating a "Paris-Berlin-Moscow-Beijing axis". More wisely, it was with his German and British counterparts that the French Foreign Minister travelled to Tehran in October 2003 to launch what would become the negotiations on Iran's nuclear programme. Another option raised the idea of consolidating the supposed "Gaullism" emerging from Germany by involving German diplomacy more closely in the exercise of our prerogatives as a permanent member of the Security Council: yet, we have cautiously limited ourselves to supporting our German partner in its ambition to obtain its own status as a permanent member.

An unfortunate sentence by President Chirac directed at Central and Eastern European countries (strong supporters of the American intervention) - "they have lost a good opportunity to keep quiet" – was enough to antagonize this side of Europe, whereas the American quagmire in Iraq could have gradually brought these countries to less enthusiastic views towards the American protector.

Chirac was not anti-American. Simply, he feared the hegemony of the US’s "hyperpower".

Above all, the French authorities reconciled with the United States fairly quickly. Condoleezza Rice had threatened to "punish France" (while "forgetting Russia" and "forgiving Germany"); she was courteously invited to come to Sciences Po in February 2005 and speak about the evil of "multipolarity". As early as summer 2003, France supported Security Council resolutions aimed at involving the United Nations in the management of post-Saddam Iraq - thus de facto facilitating the role of the United States as occupiers.

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.

Let us not pretend here that such an approach is without weaknesses. But it led Jacques Chirac to wish for a stronger Europe in a world tending towards multipolarity. It also made him a strong supporter of multilateralism: he saw in it first and foremost a safeguard of the interests of the "medium power" that had become France; then, over the years, a safeguard of the interests of humanity itself. All commentators do not quote in vain his famous formula at the Johannesburg Climate Summit in 2001: "Our house is burning and we are looking elsewhere". In the same spirit, he was a strong advocate of development aid.

What remains remarkable is that the fifth president of the Fifth Republic had such a fair view of world affairs.

Many of Chirac's initiatives to better develop international cooperation have not been successful; the same can be said of his European policy. On the other hand, he made errors of judgment (almost never defying his all too French generational trust in dictatorships). What remains remarkable is that the fifth president of the Fifth Republic had such a fair view of world affairs. For France, he was the great explorer of the fledgling multipolar world. He behaved as a foreign policy professional, thoroughly maintaining personal contacts with world leaders, but also as a great listener of diplomats’ and the military men’s opinions. It was not uncommon for a report or diplomatic cable to be annotated by the President.

Since he left the Elysée palace, China has regained its historical position, as he had anticipated. Russia has become more hostile. The United States is drifting towards who knows where. Technological changes threaten to transform everything. Tensions far outweigh cooperation. In the face of new challenges to Europe, global issues, multilateralism, the international role of France - handicapped by its economic and social difficulties -, or the need to find a way of cooperating with Washington, isn’t the current French President not struggling with similar dilemmas than those faced by Jacques Chirac?

 

Copyright : PATRICK KOVARIK / AFP

 

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