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

In October, alarmed by falling polls and rising financial
uncertainty, Chirac spoke out for more serious deficit reduction,
even austerity. Then Juppé suddenly reorganized his government in
early November to take better aim at "debts and deficits." Results,
of course, remain to be seen.

Chirac has thus inherited some nasty choices. France must be bound to
Germany economically, but will Germany continue to be as bound to
France politically? Kohl's action in pushing his allies to recognize
Slovenia and Croatia in 1991 was a bad augury, but the resulting
disaster has discouraged further German initiatives. Late in his
presidency, Mitterrand dispensed with Gaullist strictures about
Anglo-Saxon powers and began to turn to the British as an essential
element for maintaining a proper balance in the European Union.
Ironically, too, John Major's Britain is a bit of a Gaullist case
itself, picking and choosing those parts of the EU that it likes
while remaining uncommitted about the rest.

Ultimately, Chirac knows that a U.K.-French combination has neither
successful precedent nor a real prospect of "outweighing" an
assertive Germany. For now Kohl and his generation are preoccupied
with unification and reluctant to assert German diplomatic
leadership, leaving Paris some room for initiative. But the future
shape of the EU requires a hard strategic decision on Chirac's part.
He fears a German-led Europe; he cannot have a French-led Europe for
much longer; and a "European Europe" requires more players.

Russia, NATO, and the Americans

Adding more "players" to Europe in order to safeguard French security
brings to the fore the most serious conceptual problem facing Chirac.
De Gaulle wished to make France the leader of a third "bloc" that
could operate successfully between the Americans and the Russians.
The French leader's tactics were intended to loosen the hold of both
superpowers, leaving a European "center" gravitating toward French

The demise of the Soviet Union and the rebirth of a united Germany
have dealt a fatal blow to this conception. Chirac inherited thirty
years of French policy headed in the wrong direction, a legacy that
consistently irritated the Americans and weakened NATO. The danger
now is not excessive American influence over Europe but the potential
for German dominance.

As Mitterrand indicated in 1989-90, the old French impulse to combine
with Russia in order to contain Germany is far from dead. But are the
post-Soviet Russians capable of playing such a game? The answer seems
to be: Not yet. France, like other observers of Russia, sees a
country still sorting out a new identity, its politics and society
contorted in the act of change. The Moscow of today cannot be
regarded as a strong interlocutor on pan-European security problems.

Already two years ago Pierre Lellouche, then counselor to Chirac as
mayor of Paris, had reached a Cartesian conclusion. Writing in
Foreign Affairs (Spring 1993), Lellouche deduced that, by process of
elimination, a France in search of security could find it best in a
new partnership with Washington. The trouble was that both countries
faced "an arduous redefinition" offering "potential for friction."
Lellouche argued that the big challenges--instability in both the
former Soviet Union and the Islamic world--needed American
leadership. He summed up his arguments thus:

"Once again Europe is characterized by a pivotal and strong Germany,
a backward and unstable Russia, and a large number of small weak
states. And again, France and Great Britain are incapable by
themselves of balancing German power or checking Russian instability,
let alone restructuring the entire European order around a
Franco-British axis. . . . It is crucial for Europe's future to do
everything possible to consolidate the continent's only poles of
stability: the EC and the alliance with the United States."

Lellouche therefore argued for an "urgent" political negotiation
between France and America that would take advantage of their
converging interests.

Lellouche's call fell on deaf ears in both Paris and Washington.
Mitterrand was not inclined to take advice, and his practiced
aloofness now concealed seriously deteriorating health. His last two
years as president resembled a secular deathbed confession, with the
press serving as priest and the French public as the final judge.
Mitterrand's disclosures of dalliances personal (an illegitimate
daughter) and political (service to Vichy) distracted attention from
a paralyzed foreign policy.

As for Washington, neither President Clinton nor his foreign policy
team were inclined or equipped to think in strategic terms. Clinton
wished to be as much a domestic president as Bush had been a foreign
policy president. To the extent that it has taken place--which is not
very much--the "arduous redefinition" of America's post-Cold War
foreign policy has been driven more by events than concepts, by
crises rather than initiatives.

To judge from the comments of both Chirac and his foreign minister
following their initial encounters with American leaders last summer
in Washington and Halifax, they found the United States weak and
divided. The administration sounded internationalist, but the
president reminded the French that the American Congress had a say.
When Chirac argued to Bob Dole and Newt Gingrich that the United
States should help to fund the Rapid Reaction Force for Bosnia, he
found himself subjected to moral objections on the embargo and
complaints that Clinton had failed to consult congressional leaders
on the scheme. All of this could only have reinforced the Gaullist
sneer that the Americans were unreliable after all, and the fear that
the United States would simply diminish its presence in Europe until,
through that very process, it became clear that Washington no longer
had vital commitments. For Chirac and for France this would be a

The French president has clearly impressed even a distracted Clinton
administration as a "comer." It is rumored that soon he will be given
that rarest of accolades, a state visit--something recently denied
the president of the People's Republic of China. A new alliance
between the United States and France is urgent for Paris. In its
absence the Germans will continue to be the key American ally in
Europe and increasingly dominant within the continent. For the
moment, however, Chirac lacks a strategic partner in Washington.

The Nation-State and Nationalism

The fourth and final aspect of the Gaullist legacy that has been
shaken by events is the emphasis on nationalism as the foundation of
the state system. Today, nationalism in Europe looks more like the
potential destroyer of the European order than its foundation. Other
countries have joined the French in denouncing the barbarities in the
Bosnian war. Mounting anti-semitism and racial hatred elsewhere in
Europe, held in check during the Cold War, are further evidence that
nationalism rather than supranationalism remains the dominant
ideology of the "new" Europe. Despite its commitment to the noble
vision of the European Union and its espousal of "the universal right
of man", France itself is not immune to virulent strains of

A tide of immigration, especially from Algeria, has stirred in some
Frenchmen the very fanaticism they deride in others. Jean Marie Le
Pen enjoys 15 to 20 percent of the vote and has made gains not only
in regions heavily affected by immigration but in ones fearing its
future impact. Every aspect of French life, from education to
business to politics, has been influenced by the dread that France
will come--or already has come--to harbor a large minority who will
never be "French"--and this at a time when unemployment is at 12
percent. (More than five million Muslims now live in France, and more
than a million of them are from Algeria.) So it is that, nearly four
decades after the French withdrew from North Africa, the Algerian
problem still confounds French life. Immigration policy is now bound
up with French fears about Islamic fundamentalism sweeping North
Africa, and terrorism disrupting their own lives. Paris has
struggled, so far in vain, to stabilize the situation in Algeria,
vacillating between policies of supporting Algerian military
repression and encouraging an all-party compromise.

The struggle to sustain a benevolent French nationalism has in turn
begun to influence France's otherwise scandal-ridden and moribund
African policy. Described in Libération (July 19, 1995) by an unnamed
presidential aide as a "splendid mess," the use of French development
funds (and occasionally troops) to sustain a corrupt and unstable set
of tyrants in Africa shook the Mitterrand government to its roots.
Mitterrand's idea of a proper ruler in Africa seems to have been a
French-educated, neo-socialist "reformer"; he disdained the King of
Morocco and others of a supposedly ancien régime. Scandal and the
immigration problem have led Chirac to a different approach. When he
visited Africa this past summer, he made a point of going to Morocco
first, the better to boost the safe Islam of King Hassan against the
extremists in Algeria.

The French have also begun to connect the diseased nationalism of the
Balkans and the African-Algerian troubles into a kind of world view.
Europe (and France) are threatened--so say Juppé and Millon--by the
collapse of states both in the north and in the south, the one a
consequence of the Soviet demise, the other a result of the
fundamentalist assault. The French therefore argue that neither the
European Union nor NATO can afford to focus exclusively on Central or
Eastern Europe; there must also be a "Southern Policy" to strengthen
that flank. This, of course, reopens a constant theme in the
evolution of the EU itself and indeed within some of its members,
especially Italy: Is the EU to be dominated by a northern Europe or a
southern one? France, given its location and historic ties across the
Mediterranean--and also its discomfort with a reunited Germany--is
now arguing for a larger southern dimension. And while de Gaulle's
African empire was related in part to domestic needs (the Algerian
French repatriates), Chirac's "southern strategy" reflects an even
more acute sense of domestic vulnerability.

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