Chirac: Beyond Gaullism?

Chirac: Beyond Gaullism?

Mini Teaser: The annual G-7 economic summits have been justly described as photoopportunities in which anything except economics may be discussed.

by Author(s): Harvey Sicherman

The annual G-7 economic summits have been justly described as photo
opportunities in which anything except economics may be discussed.
The Halifax Summit of June 1995 was no exception, the sherpas having
gotten their masters to agree on the economic communiqué even before
they arrived at the mountain. But a singular photo-op at Halifax
captured something new: the collective leadership of the West crowded
about a tall commanding figure reading a message on the Bosnian
crisis. That figure was not President Clinton. He stood respectfully
behind the man enthusiastically holding center stage--the new French
president, Jacques Chirac.

It was a Gaullist dream come true. A timid Germany, a less-than-timid
Britain, a faltering Japan, and a seriously distressed Italy were
joined by a weak Russia. Above all, there was Bill Clinton, the
American "domestic" president, hobbled by a hostile Congress and an
erratic foreign policy. Chirac seized his opportunity, and
international leadership spoke with a French accent for the first
time since de Gaulle himself departed the scene nearly thirty years

The hugely popular newly-elected president of the world's
fourth-largest economy, Jacques Chirac was also the leader of the
Gaullist party. Six months before, as mayor of Paris, he had been
considered a long shot to win France's highest office. Savoring his
unexpected triumph, he began even before the summit with a piece of
Gaullist haughtiness, defying world opinion by scheduling a round of
French nuclear tests. Now, using the Halifax meeting as a launch pad,
he promptly disconcerted the Russians, the Americans, and the British
by declaring a new policy in Bosnia: get tough or get out. He wanted
to avoid a Munich, he said. As for the leadership of the West, he
told a reporter, there was no such leadership.

Before June was over, Chirac had also ridden roughshod over
prevailing niceties at a European Union summit in Cannes, criticizing
the Greek prime minister over the Balkans and the "lax" Dutch drug
policy while conducting brisk meetings as host-chairman. He also
sought to create a group of "wise men" to study the risks of currency
fluctuation and trade conflict between countries joining the proposed
European Monetary Union (EMU) and those remaining outside, both
groups containing countries in commercial competition with France.
Chirac proposed as chairman for such a group a former French
president and current coalition ally, Mr. Valéry Giscard d'Éstaing.

Meanwhile, the French president was breaking taboos at home. He
acknowledged French complicity in the deportation of Jews to the
slaughter in World War II, an admission his predecessor had
stubbornly resisted. Chirac thus became the first postwar French
leader to accept the shameful truth that too many Frenchmen had been
not just defeatists but collaborators in their defeat.

All of these dramatic activities brought mixed results. By early
October the Croatian offensive against the Serbs and a burst of
American diplomatic activity had overshadowed the French role. The EU
proved resistant to French plans, too; bruised by Chirac's
highhandedness, the smaller member countries led a successful charge
to deny him his wise man's group, thereby irritating the host who had
irritated them. Chirac himself seemed surprised by the hostile
international reaction to his nuclear plans. Last and certainly not
least, he was coming under growing criticism at home for a domestic
policy that was noticeably less decisive and energetic than either
his foreign policy or his pre-election promises. In particular, he
was being held hostage to his campaign pledge to reduce France's high
level of unemployment.

Despite these setbacks, Chirac's boldness in seeking to fill the
vacuum of Western leadership created by the inadequacies of the
Clinton administration has been impressive. The French challenge--Le
Défi Français--came as a surprise on both sides of the Atlantic.
France's European allies had grown rather bored with the prickly mix
of self-interest and Gaullist gloire represented by Mitterrand, and
had come to relegate the French to a subsidiary role. Washington, too,
dismissed France as a secondary power and focused its attention on a
reunited Germany. Chirac's seizing of the initiative has thus served
to remind his allies of France's importance. But the question
remains: Is Chirac's attempt at vaulting France once more into
international leadership sustainable? Or is he doomed to be simply a
flash in the pan, someone who will soon subside into a mildly
annoying irrelevance?

Under the Gaullist constitution, the French president exercises
virtually unfettered control over foreign policy; the British prime
minister, the German chancellor and the American president are mere
committee chairmen by comparison. And until Chirac, that power was
exercised by de Gaulle's successors on behalf of "Gaullism," a
broadly popular set of principles to the French, but principles that
most of France's allies, and especially the United States, only
vaguely understood and tended to regard as presumptuous.

Chirac and his policies can only be understood in the framework of
Gaullism and its four key elements: (1) retention of an independent
nuclear arsenal as essential to French independence and global
influence; (2) diplomatic domination of an economically more powerful
Germany; (3) suspicion of NATO as an instrument of American power and
a determination to stay distanced from it; and (4) assertion of the
nation, and nationalism, as the true and reliable lodestar of
international politics. These elements together sustained de Gaulle's
vision of France as the leader of Europe--a Europe of nations, not
supranational institutions--that would maneuver between the
Anglo-Saxon powers and the Russians.

All of these principles have been challenged drastically by the end
of the Cold War. In the first six months of a seven-year term,
Jacques Chirac has already begun to lead in new directions, modifying
policy--and Gaullist traditions--in some cases (but not all), and
hinting at more change to come. But Chirac faces some daunting
dilemmas. If, how, and when he resolves them will affect not only
vital French interests but also the security of Europe and the future
of the Atlantic Alliance.

The Nuclear Dilemma

As the Cold War ended, the small and costly French force de frappe (5
submarines with 80 missiles; 18 IRBMs; and about 225 nuclear-capable
aircraft) seemed to appreciate in value. Theoretically, at least, the
massive reduction of the superpowers' nuclear arsenals required by
start i and start ii made the French nuclear deterrent more
formidable; it had meant little in the 1970s and 1980s as the United
States and the Soviet Union fielded ever larger numbers of warheads.
Even more significantly, the French nuclear force might now be joined
to the already existing "Eurocorps", consisting of French and German
contingents, to create a real European defense community.

These ambitions, however, collided with another reality. The Gulf War
exposed serious weaknesses in French conventional forces. Under
French law, conscripts cannot be used abroad and the professional
French contingent sent to the Gulf was small and under-equipped. Four
years after the event, Defense Minister Charles Millon was still
reminding the readers of Le Monde (June 30, 1995) of "the
difficulties we encountered during the Gulf War", and stressing the
need for a new professionalism emphasizing space technology,
intelligence, firepower, readiness, and mobility--all characteristic
of the Pentagon's best efforts in Operation Desert Storm. (It was
only in July of this year that the French managed to launch their own
spy satellite--not up to U.S. standards, but to the French preferable
to relying on the United States.) France's emphasis on self-reliance
and its long absence from NATO's integrated military organization
(though never as complete as the Gaullists pretended) had hurt the
country's military capability. Clearly, more money must be spent if
French nuclear and conventional forces are to be improved. But there
is no money. The French government's deficit is too high, and the
impending European Monetary Union requires it to be lowered
considerably. Chirac will therefore be hard put to sustain even the
current defense budget of about $37 billion per year (in francs
virtually the same as 1993).

These facts about the overall condition of the French military cast
new light on the nuclear test controversy. France could have chosen,
as Britain has done, to rely for its warhead design on American
models; the British are also dependent on U.S. computer simulations
to keep their arsenal reliable. But such simulations derive
ultimately from testing patterns. In the absence of an agreement with
the United States, Chirac chose the old Gaullist route, breaking
Mitterrand's three-year-old testing moratorium.

Even before the first test in early September this brisk decision
proved to be a huge gaffe. Major trading partners in Asia threatened
economic retaliation; French goods were boycotted. The timing of the
first test, coming just after the fiftieth anniversary of Hiroshima,
made things worse. Some of France's European allies expressed
displeasure. But worst of all, Chirac's policy of ignoring
international opinion was not very popular in France itself, where
past displays of Gaullist disdain for foreign opinion had usually
rallied the public around the government position.

Chirac's nuclear tests also had an effect in Washington. The Pentagon
had recommended a curtailed series of low-level American tests, and
Clinton characteristically could not decide what to do. As protests
enveloped the French in early August, he suddenly announced his
support for a complete test ban. That leaves France alone among the
Western nuclear powers to argue the case for a testing program--at
least through the current planned series--on no better ground than to
retain its scientific independence of the Americans.

Essay Types: Essay