Sunday, February 01, 2004

The Comic and Inept Cynicism of Jacques Chirac

The foolishness and farce which is Jacques Chirac is becoming almost too predictable. In a move pregnant with cynicism, Jacques Chirac was in Geneva last week with Brazil’s leftist president, “Lula” da Silva, to announce cooperation on a Franco-Brazilian study group. The goal of this group is to look into possible means, including a “global tax” administered by the United Nations, to fight poverty and famine in the third world. (And as one who has worked for the UN, I can attest that a good place to start would be to fire most of the UN staff from the respective nations establishing the study group.)

Now, as far as da Silva is concerned, I would say this move is more or less sincere on his part given that he is from the left and seems genuinely to believe in global measure to aid the poor. I may disagree, but I have no reason to question his motives. But, as far as Jacques Chirac goes, it is hard to take this man seriously.

The first reason for doubt is that one of the main complaints coming from the developing world is that agricultural subsidies in developed nations bar third world farmers from access to wealthier markets. This is more or less true and is something I feel should be changed. If a farmer from Zimbabwe can grow something more cheaply than a farmer from Brest, he should also be able to sell the product more cheaply; assuming of course that Robert Mugabe hasn’t already had him shot.

This brings me to my second reason for doubt. Jacques Chirac, perhaps more than any other western leader, never misses an opportunity to trumpet his dedication to multilateralism and cooperation with the developing world. In fact, he is so desperate to find friends among the most wretched of the third world that he broke the European Union ban on allowing Mugabe into the EU in order to shake the old dictator’s hand a few years ago. Of course, this has been French strategy for some time. Unable to foster the “special relationship” that has marked Anglo-American relations since World War II, France has sought to hit above its weight internationally by befriending any and all dictators who would have it. Now, this isn’t to say that the US hasn’t looked the other way in order to gain the favor of some rather unsavory types. But before we enter into the game of political equivocation, it is important to see exactly what France and the US have respectively accomplished.

On the American side, the US, since the 1950’s, was engaged in a protracted effort to scuttle the Red Army’s influence, first in Europe and then globally. It succeeded and is today the most powerful nation on the planet. France, on the other hand, seems to have befriended dictators in order to augment its own obsession with French glory. The results are mixed. Now, I don’t deny that de Gaulle did impressive things with the French nation, and I would readily admit that I think the US should have been somewhat less dismissive of his leadership, both in terms of the role France could play in spreading civilization and balancing off the Soviets in Europe.

And yet, it’s a bit difficult to see exactly what the French geopolitical strategy has achieved apart from leaving Jacques Chirac wandering the planet with his nose stuck up the backside of any dictator who will humor him. Once again, I’m not saying France should simply go along with the US or follow Britain’s lead. What I am saying is that France’s geopolitical strategy – looking for friends in the worst places – has neither been a great boon to civilization as a whole, nor has it done much for France.

Even today, France looks remarkably unstable in Europe. Generally – and this is a view I share – most commentators, when they’re not pontificating about the community of nations in the European Union, are willing to admit that there are three big players in western Europe who dominate the scene: Germany, Britain and France. But is this really so? In fact, it may be more appropriate to say that there are two and a half, France being the half. France is increasingly being sidelined in the military field by a more aggressive Britain, which, precisely because of its special relationship with the US and its historic ties to the Commonwealth, continues to play a military and global role of significant impact. France, on the other hand, is slowly but surely falling further and further behind the British in this regard. Their lone aircraft carrier is usually in dry-dock for repairs, while Chirac’s recent obsession with the UN and his mantra to the effect that “war is always the worst solution,” are turning France into a military power far below that of Britain. Even France’s former colonies are little impressed with French intervention, the Ivory Coast being the most recent example. The simple fact is that when Britain speaks in the world, its voice still commands a certain respect. France has little influence when it speaks alone.

This fact was confirmed during the Iraq crisis. Until German Chancellor Schroeder started campaigning against “American adventurism,” Chirac was actually quite equivocal about what role France might play in any action in Iraq. It was only once Germany finally took a stand that Chirac came out of the closet as the great pacifist and conciliator. The problem is that even France+Germany does not equal Britain on military matters. In fact, even France+Germany+Russia+China does not equal Britain and the US on military matters. However, what Chirac was relying on was Germany’s economic clout within the EU to win him the day and at least increase his bargaining power in the
EU. Economically, Germany, despite its recent troubles, has been a powerhouse. This isn’t to say that France hasn’t had its successes since World War II, but it certainly can’t match Germany.

And this is France’s predicament. It is no longer Britain’s military and diplomatic equivalent, and it can’t match Germany for economic influence. Combine this with the fact that it is the only western European nation where an ostensibly right of centre government is hostile to the United States, and we see that France has little choice but to seek glory in the arms of less desirable elements worldwide.

The problem is that this becomes a trap. The United States, and Britain and Germany have something to show for their persistent fights against communism. France seems to have little to show but the endless need to suck up to dictators. In other words, France never seems to get beyond its foolish posture of coddling global crooks. It betrays its own desire for glory and mocks its own history.

But it doesn’t end there, because it always eventually appears as the cynical gambit it is. On the one hand, Chirac cast himself in the role of friend of the Arabs against the mean and imperialist Americans, while only recently supporting a measure to ban the wearing of head scarves by Muslim girls in French public schools – a move that resulted in protests around the world. I’m not making a judgment, mind you, about the worth or practicality of the move – I tend to think the French can do what they want in their country. What I’m pointing to is the ridiculous contradiction between Chirac’s pandering to the developing world one day, while seemingly enraging it the next. And now we have the president of the nation that most violently defends European agricultural subsidies (that would be France again) blithering around in Geneva about his common efforts with the Brazilians to prevent famine. It is a comedy of most remarkable proportions.

Unfortunately, as I’ve noted, it is the geopolitical strategy (if one can call something so feckless, a strategy) of the cynical leadership that France is remarkably good at producing these days. Now, if we consider that most of the world more or less sees this for what it is, though no one will ever say it, we can perhaps dismiss it as simple entertainment. But it is not altogether clear that this cynicism in international policy is limited to the international realm. Indeed, domestic French politics is looking increasingly unstable. Regional elections are coming up in March and the extremes of left and right look well positioned to win some important posts. In this regard, I can think of no other western European nation that is so threatened by internal political decay. Whatever the problems of other European nations, most now seem relatively calm, if somewhat predictable. That isn’t to say France isn’t predictable – it is, but predictably unstable. Will it lead anywhere? Who knows and maybe eventually the point may be made: Who cares?

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