San Francisco Chronicle Foreign Service
Saturday, February 22, 2003
Paris -- A day after Jacques Chirac ruffled feathers by advising several Eastern European countries to shut up about the Iraq crisis, a new poll found that more than three-quarters of the French considered their president courageous in bucking Washington's rush to war.
Then came news that he was short-listed among 150 nominations for the Nobel Peace Prize.
Chirac may be scorned from Washington to Wichita as a self-interested coward, and he was depicted as a worm Thursday in a caricature in Britain's tabloid Sun. But a year into his second presidential term, the conservative Gaullist president is enjoying soaring popularity at home, which has eluded him for much of his political career.
"For someone who before his re-election nine months ago was widely seen as a charming chancer who had achieved nothing of note in a 40-year career and would be in prison were he not in the Elysee Palace, Mr. Chirac's return to the world arena has been spectacular," Britain's Guardian newspaper wrote Thursday.
Still, as Chirac seeks to be remembered as more than an amiable chameleon, it is unclear whether his opposition to war on Iraq will help or hurt.
"He's 70 and nearing the end of his life," said Etienne Schweisguth, an analyst at the Center for the Study of French Political Life in Paris. "Perhaps he's decided it's time to do something in his political career, to act according to his convictions. The Iraqi crisis gives him that opportunity."
For now at least, Schweisguth said, "Chirac's been able to unify the country by presenting himself as the man who expresses what the French want -- to not let the United States dominate the world."
OIL UNLIKELY MOTIVE
A mix of motives -- from boosting France's stature in the European Union and overseas to fear of a potential backlash by some 5 million Muslims living in France -- may play into Chirac's pro-peace calculations. However, few believe that long-standing French oil interests in Iraq play much of a role.
"If the French were really interested in oil, they would go along with the Americans," said Guillaume Parmentier, director of the French Center on the United States, in Paris. "We know where this war is going to go. The Americans are going to win."
What is clear is that Chirac's popular image could not be more different from what it was a year ago, when he was battling a slump in the polls, long- simmering scandals and expectations that he would be ousted from office by his bookish leftist prime minister, Lionel Jospin.
But in a stunning stroke of fortune for Chirac, far-right National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen nosed out Jospin to place second in the first-round presidential elections last April. That left Chirac, who barely captured 20 percent of the initial vote, in the unlikely role as savior of the republic. He won re-election by a landslide.
Now, as France's relations with Washington worsen, Chirac has rarely been so secure at home. The Senate and National Assembly are dominated by members of his Union for the Presidential Majority party. The country's once-powerful leftist coalition is dispirited and divided, while Le Pen's far right is marginalized.
POLITICAL FOES BACK STANCE
Even traditional leftist voters grudgingly find nice things to say about their president.
"I agree with Chirac that there are other ways to deal with the Iraqi crisis besides war," said Marie-Noelle Herault, 44, a Paris nursery schoolteacher. "I hope it's not just some manipulation to boost his image. But I'm not going to discount what he may accomplish just because I don't like his other policies."
Chirac's search for a more lasting legacy may have started well before the Iraqi crisis.
In a November profile, Le Monde newspaper noted that Chirac had already jettisoned old hangers-on and picked a younger, more diverse Cabinet. His new governing mantra is decentralization, and he is urging his ministers to leave Paris for the provinces at least once a month.
But in a telling indication of the president's reputation, Le Monde titled its article "The New Faces of Jacques Chirac."
Chirac has already presented many faces during his marathon career. Tall and distinguished, he offers an easy touch, both at presidential summits and tramping around the French countryside.
Born in Paris in 1932, he rose quickly in politics, becoming economics secretary under President Charles de Gaulle in the late 1960s. When Valery Giscard d'Estaing became president in 1974, he appointed Chirac premier.
But with the string of successes has come a series of setbacks.
Chirac split with Giscard in 1976, later forming his own party, a betrayal the former president has never forgotten. As the powerful mayor of Paris for 18 years, Chirac made it his mini-fiefdom. But he failed twice to capture France's political crown jewel, the presidency.
He was finally elected president in 1995, only to lose his conservative majority in parliament two years later.
At home, he has been dogged by a string of allegations, from presiding over kickbacks as Paris' mayor to questionable payments for lavish trips abroad.
FRANCE IN NATO
Overseas, Chirac burnishes his pro-Arab image and de Gaulle's legacy of an independent-minded French defense posture. Still, it was Chirac who returned France to NATO's military camp in 1995 after a 30-year absence.
Today, Chirac's presidential image is carefully cultivated by his daughter Claude, his top press adviser. During her father's 1995 campaign, Claude Chirac had him discard old-fashioned sweaters and arranged photo ops with rock and movie stars. Today, she occasionally signals him to stop talking. Chirac has taken flak over his daughter's influence but apparently is a forgiving sort.
"A powerful man wouldn't allow himself to be momentarily castrated, except by someone sharing his interests 100 percent," political strategist Jean- Pierre Raffarin told the Guardian last year. Raffarin is now prime minister.
In an interview published this week by Time magazine, Chirac denied being anti-American.
"I know the U.S. perhaps better than most French people, and I really like the United States," he said of the country where he studied and worked as a young man. "I've made many excellent friends there; I feel good there."
Nonetheless, Chirac's reservations about George Bush's Iraq policy is his strong suit today.
Even the far-right's emerging star, Marine Le Pen -- daughter of the National Front leader -- cannot fault him, though her father detests Chirac.
"For the moment, Chirac is behaving on Iraq in a way I agree with," said Marine Le Pen. But she added: ". . . Since he never has strong convictions, when he says something we're never sure how long it will last."
However, Chirac's outburst this week against the emerging former communist nations of "new Europe" that have allied themselves with the United States on the war with Iraq -- scolding them for their "not well brought-up behavior" -- has finally sparked some domestic criticism.
"We understand Chirac's perception," Socialist Party spokesman Eric Besson said in an interview. "But we think he was wrong in treating them like badly behaved little children."
The leftist Liberation, which rarely misses an opportunity to bash Chirac, asked Wednesday, "Who lost a good occasion to shut up?"
By heaping scorn on the impoverished EU candidate countries, Liberation wrote, "Chirac has committed the same error as American leaders. . . . Arrogance never makes good politics."
(In accordance with Title 17 U.S.C. Section 107, this material is distributed without profit to those who have expressed a prior interest in receiving the included information for research and educational purposes.)