When George Bush was in the White House, he liked to quote Woody Allen saying that 80% of success was just showing up. For the sake of his government's future, French President Jacques Chirac would do well to heed the former U.S. President's view on life.
Chirac showed up on the world stage 18 months ago with a Parliamentary majority so big it gave him the strongest leadership position in any Western government. At first, he wowed the world with vigor and dynamism. But when it came time to follow through and work on France's most pressing problem--reforming the country's rigid, statist economy, which cannot generate jobs and suffers from 12.6% unemployment--he all but disappeared.
Chirac showed up last year for Europe's big economic project, monetary union. Under pressure from German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, he agreed to tough budget-cutting reforms that would get France into a strong, new European Monetary Union. He got his Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, to make some serious cuts in the budget. But Chirac never got around to building a broad social consensus behind sacrifice. He's caving in to truckers and others battling economic reform and fiscal conservatism. And he's reversing course on a strong European currency. Instead of reforming France's economy to generate growth, Chirac is pushing for a weak European currency to promote exports. He has persuaded Germany to talk down the mark and the franc against the dollar in a dangerous game of competitive devaluation.
Today, when Chirac and Juppe make tough choices, they're apt to retreat quickly. After setting a priority of restructuring France's defense business, they backed off from the sale of defense and electronics giant Thomson when the country's corporate and political elite opposed it. After agreeing to sell Thomson's TV and media operations to Korea's Daewoo Corp., they suspended the deal. Chirac's behavior on European security has been equally ambivalent. On taking office, he pledged that France would re-enter NATO's integrated military command, which it left in 1966. But then he insisted that a European officer be named regional commander of NATO's southern command, which happens to oversee the U.S. Sixth Fleet. No U.S. President could possibly agree to relinquish control of this force, so Chirac finds himself backing off his pledge to get France into the NATO command.
In the post-cold-war world, where France's role is diminished, showing up must be matched by following through. If France wants to join a strong EMU, Chirac should face down truck drivers and statist bureaucrats. A real leader doesn't try to build a European currency intended to rival the U.S. dollar by fudging budgets. He doesn't try to exert geopolitical power by petulantly demanding to take over the biggest naval armada of the world's only superpower. For 18 months, France and Europe have been waiting for a true leader. Time is running out for Chirac to play the role.