No Strength, No Glory For France

A weak economy saps Chirac's drive to restore Gallic prestige abroad

French President Jacques Chirac would like nothing better than to go down in history as the father of a new era of European foreign policy--one with a distinctly French flavor. To stake his claim, the energetic leader is working overtime to raise France's voice in international affairs. In a flurry of diplomatic missions over the past 18 months, Chirac has been popping up in Middle East crisis zones, elbowing into the dialogue between Russia and NATO, and pushing Eastern Europe's entry to the European Union. "We want to be like a motor for creating a European foreign policy," a senior aide to Chirac told BUSINESS WEEK in a recent interview at the presidential palace.

Understandably, Chirac is eager to restore the power and position that France lost in the wake of German unification. Putting a French stamp on 21st century European foreign policy would go a long way toward alleviating the post-cold-war identity crisis that has plagued France for six years.

But Chirac's strategy could backfire. With the French economy in the doldrums, unemployment near 13%, and parliamentary elections approaching in 1998, Chirac urgently needs to shore up his popularity. And voters care far more about their jobs and incomes than about France's role on the world stage.

Indeed, Chirac's foreign policy forays may be putting the cart before the horse, distracting him from urgent problems at home. As campaign staffers for U.S. President Bill Clinton reminded one another before Clinton swept George Bush out of the Oval Office in 1992: "It's the economy, stupid." The French President seems to forget that without economic strength, his country is unlikely to gain political clout. "A weak France will not be able to lead Europe," says Dominique Moisi, deputy director of the French Institute of International Relations in Paris.

WAXING ELOQUENT. That partly explains why Chirac's diplomatic initiatives have stirred irritation in world capitals. France's declining economy undercuts its urge to play kingmaker in European affairs. For instance, on her first tour of Europe's capitals this week, newly confirmed U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright gave short shrift to several French proposals.

She brushed aside the Russian idea, backed by France, for a "four-plus-one" summit meeting in April of the U.S., Germany, France, Britain, and Russia to resolve Russian objections to the enlargement of NATO. Instead, on Feb. 18, she offered an alternative proposal to create a joint NATO-Russia military brigade. Albright also ignored France's fervent bid to include Romania, a country it considers within its sphere of influence, in the first wave of new countries added to NATO.

By contrast, Albright tacitly acknowledged America's reliance on Germany as its key European partner. In a 90-minute conversation with Chirac, Albright spoke "nearly fluent French," according to an aide who was present, but didn't go into detail on any key topic. Upon her arrival in Bonn, however, she waxed eloquent about the special relationship between the U.S. and Germany and set to work with Chancellor Helmut Kohl's team on the details of a strategy to win Russian approval for adding at least Hungary, Poland, and the Czech Republic to NATO before a July 8 summit meeting.

Even France's European partners are less than enthusiastic about Chirac's initiatives, complaining that he often passes off French national interests as European. Patronage of francophone Romania is one example. "Chirac claims to speak for Europe, but clearly he's speaking for France. He's running ahead of European partners without their backing," says Heather Grabbe, an analyst at the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.

German officials, even when annoyed, tend to tolerate France's grandstanding. That's because they need French cooperation to continue making progress toward the shared goal of greater European economic unity. But Germany's acquiescence goes only so far. When it comes to the French urge to shrink the role of the U.S. in Europe, Bonn balks. France has proposed that the U.S. cede a number of its command posts within NATO, especially in the Mediterranean. "The German priority is that the U.S. remain in Europe," says Werner Kaltefleiter, of the Institute for Security Studies in Kiel.

Washington officials say it's unthinkable that anyone but an American command the U.S. Sixth Fleet in the Mediterranean. France now says it intended only to propose an integrated French, Spanish, and Italian naval fleet under European command. The idea of a European fleet is "crazy," says Kaltefleiter. "What's it worth without the Americans?" French aides say Chirac may go back on his pledge to integrate France's military into NATO unless the U.S. accepts an independent European command in the Mediterranean. But most expect France to find other concessions that will allow it to join NATO's military command this year.

In some cases, France's unilateral initiatives have served a greater European purpose. The difficulty of getting all 15 members of the European Union to agree on anything means that each time they can rally around an issue, the EU takes another step toward its long-term goal of political unity. For example, French officials point out that Chirac's meddling in the Middle East peace process last year led to the appointment of an EU representative to the region. French shuttle diplomacy following an outbreak of violence on the Israeli-Lebanese border last May infuriated U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher, but it led to the creation of a five-country surveillance committee to monitor a ceasefire, co-chaired by the French and the Americans.

STALEMATE. Yet even if such coups raise France's global political profile, Chirac may be fiddling while Paris burns. Although French Presidents traditionally leave domestic policy to their Prime Ministers, Chirac's beleaguered Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, has made little headway with urgently needed economic reforms. Efforts to restructure the social security system have failed, state-owned companies continue to bleed money, and panicked workers are stepping up strikes and boycotts.

The stalemate requires an all-out campaign to persuade workers that deregulation, privatization, and competition will create jobs, not destroy them. Only by throwing his energies into economic growth will Chirac build a stronger France and get the worldwide respect he craves.