France as a team player Chirac visit: It takes a Gaullist to deflate Gaullism for good.

February 04, 1996

PRESIDENT Jacques Chirac of France came back to an America where he was a student four decades ago to tell President Clinton and Congress mostly what they wanted to hear. He had unilaterally ended French nuclear testing in the South Pacific -- for all time he said -- on the eve of the visit. He came as political heir to Charles de Gaulle, who had yanked France out of NATO participation and kicked U.S. soldiers out of France three decades ago. He came also as head of a French regime that has placed French soldiers under U.S. NATO command in Bosnia. And he came to beg the U.S. to remain engaged in Europe, albeit in a reduced capacity as the Europeans get their defense act together.

He also said the U.S. should be as generous to the poorest countries as Europeans are. That may have played well enough with the pages in attendance, but the House and Senate members whose seats they were filling are not going to do it this budget year.

The U.S. and France will still have differences, notably in Rwanda and Burundi where the U.S. gives priority to preventing further genocide and France to increasing its influence regardless of the consequences. But the basic message is that the France of today is mostly a team player and the U.S. is not going to have a French problem in its European policy.

Mr. Chirac saw the bus of European unity leaving the station and dragged his country on it. His preoccupation is trimming down domestic entitlements, to the fury of many Frenchmen, to qualify for a common currency with Germany in a few years. With that on his plate, he cannot worry about the pomposities of the Gaullist legacy. He is seeking help. Before the Economic Club of Chicago, he called for joint action to stabilize exchange rates. With capital flows what they are today, that may be more than central banks can do.

As a card-carrying Gaullist, he is able to dispense with Gaullism. His predecessor, the late Francois Mitterrand, long maintained Gaullism by pretending not to be part of it. All in all, Mr. Chirac brought a moderately gratifying message to Americans who bothered to hear it.

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