Despite increased ill will against France--including Japanese calls for boycotting French products--President Jacques Chirac persists in his plan to test atomic weapons in the South Pacific. By now, every schoolchild knows that nuclear arms have lost most of their meaning in the post-Soviet world. The French should know this best of all. They're the leading force in trying to resolve Europe's biggest armed conflict in half a century--the war in Bosnia--and France's nuclear arsenal hasn't made the slightest impression on the participants.
For Chirac, the real significance of nuclear testing is political, not military. Elected President in May, he is the nation's first Gaullist leader in 21 years and appears bent on polishing up the Gallic grandeur his movement's founder, Charles de Gaulle, claimed for France. Apparently, Chirac believes that rattling bombs proves that France is still a power to be reckoned with. Doing so in the face of world opinion shows that Gaullists can be every bit as ornery as they were back in the 1960s, when France savored being the Western world's odd man out.
Sadly though, Chirac seems to be following such nationalistic thinking in other realms as well. Recently, he alienated his European allies by rejecting an earlier deal to drop border controls on the free movement of European Union residents. Long noted for a sharp tongue, Chirac has given haughty lectures to fellow European leaders on subjects ranging from Bosnia to currency devaluations. Many Europeans complain of a rebirth of French arrogance.
It's unfortunate to see a smart, capable leader shoot his country in the foot. Unlike Britain's wounded Prime Minister John Major, Chirac has a huge parliamentary majority. He is guaranteed seven years in the Elysee Palace, so he has no need to stir up nationalistic voters or recalcitrant backbenchers.
Chirac's Gaullism needs an update. France has one of the world's largest economies, excellent technology, and a tough army. It is a country that counts. But go-it-alone cantankerousness is a surefire recipe for diluting French power around the world.
France's new President could show courage and dignity by canceling his country's planned series of nuclear tests. Then he should try a little quiet teamwork to get European unity rolling again. With tact and realism, Chirac could build a new world role for France that would be the envy of Charles de Gaulle and would greatly benefit his leadership-hungry allies.