Chirac in Charge

July 23, 1995

What difference does it make who is president of France? Jacques Chirac has come up with an answer for skeptical Americans. He is a Gaullist. He means to have impact. In global terms, France is back; in domestic terms, the president is back.

No more the fading pomposity of the 14-year Socialist president, Francois Mitterrand, for whom grandeur was architectural and who was forced to "cohabit" with a conservative cabinet. Since inauguration on May 17, Jacques Chirac has been in charge. Prime Minister Alain Juppe serves at his pleasure. The brash 64-year-old president is making up for lost time. Mr. Chirac discarded the presidential airplane fleet. He ordered his motorcade to stop for traffic lights (arguably the only Parisians who do). It is not the trappings of power he covets, but power itself.

Mr. Chirac is forcing a fish-or-cut-bait decision by NATO on Bosnia. He ordered French troops to shoot back. He created a French rapid reaction force. He compared reluctant allies to the appeasers of Hitler's aggression in the 1930s. He threatens to pull French troops out if the military resolve on the part of allies fails to materialize.

This is the Jacques Chirac who shocked the world by unilaterally declaring France will resume underground nuclear weapons testing before it quits. He has no allies outside of France on this, and few inside. But he is going ahead.

He shocked the French by acknowledging the guilt of their state in deporting some 76,000 Jews to Nazi extermination camps during World War II. His predecessors had maintained that the regime in Vichy which did that was not legitimate, absolving the nation. "These dark hours forever sully our history and are an insult to our past and our traditions," Mr. Chirac said. This honesty contrasts with Mr. Mitterrand, who was only recently revealed to have had a compromising Vichy past.

In the tradition of his hero, Charles de Gaulle, Mr. Chirac is a poor European. He held France out of the inner core of European states that ended passport controls between them. He pours skepticism on the target dates for monetary unification. He suggests the Franco-German special relationship be matched by Franco-British and Franco-Spanish special relationships.

Mr. Chirac has resumed the selling-off of French state industry, but he appears more a statist than free-market conservative. His first budget is meant to jump-start the economy. Creating jobs is more important to him than doctrinal purism.

He does not, however, deal only from strength. Of the scandals corroding faith in European governments, his first has erupted. It involves a slush inventory of luxury apartments maintained by the municipality of Paris for political patronage during his long tenure as mayor. Mr. Chirac is, for better or worse, reviving the French impact on world affairs. Unless "Chiractown" pulls him down.

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