France's version of Thatcher has made his own troubles, says Mary Dejevsky
THE WAY the French say "Jacques Chirac", quickly but clearly, with a stress on the last syllable, makes him sound more like a supermarket brand than a president. During the election campaign, it was all Jacques Chi-rac - the remedy for unemployment, Jacques Chi-rac - the answer to your budget deficit, Jacques Chi-rac - the wonder-product to mend France's social fractures.

Ten weeks into his presidency, the unique selling points seem to have changed. Jacques Chi-rac, we might now be hearing - true heir of De Gaulle; Jacques Chi-rac - puts France back on the map; Jacques Chi-rac - alone, but right.

Poor Jacques Chi-rac, you hear people saying, he never had time to settle in properly. He's been up against it from the start, one crisis after another: French troops taken hostage near Sarajevo, rows about the future of Europe, the fall of Srebrenica, the Greenpeace "invasion" in the South Pacific, threats of a trade boycott over nuclear tests, his prime minister's involvement in a housing scandal and then last week the terrible bomb in the Paris Metro ...

Well yes, and no. Mr Chirac, it is true, has had a frantic first few weeks, and there is no obvious way that the Metro bomb, which looks more and more likely to have an Algerian connection, can be blamed on his policies. But many of the controversies and crises raging around him are of his making. Considered in the harsh light of a scorching July, he seems less accident-prone than accident-courting.

Mr Chirac would not talk of accidents. He clearly sees himself as someone who makes things happen rather than has them happen to him, and he would probably blame all the drama on inherited compromises and weaknesses that had to be eliminated - for clarity and the honour of France.

Take Bosnia. Mr Chirac could have continued the policy of Alain Juppe. As foreign minister under the previous prime minister, Edouard Balladur, in the absence of any strong lead from an ailing President Mitterrand, Mr Juppe played a low-key role inside the shaky consensus of the Western alliance. French UN soldiers were killed and taken hostage without national outcry. France's military involvement was not an election issue.

Instead, Mr Chirac - who regards his military service in the Algerian war as one of the formative experiences of his life - chose to react immediately to one of the first incidents involving French soldiers. He reprimanded the army top brass in Paris for being "wimps". He ordered commanders in the field to instruct French troops to fire back if attacked, and volunteered to take personal responsibility for any French deaths.

To his mind, death is preferable to dishonour. Time and again in recent weeks he has recalled the moment when French soldiers were shown being disarmed by Bosnian Serbs and made to raise a white flag before being taken hostage. That, to the newly installed French president, was something never to be repeated. It was as a direct response to that episode that plans were laid for the "rapid reaction force".

Then came the fall of Srebrenica - a city with special resonance for France since General Philippe Morillon personally offered himself as a hostage two years ago to halt the Serb advance there. Never one to mince words, Mr Chirac immediately spoke of Serb "barbarism" and called on the UN to retake the enclave, offering French troops to help. Despite the softer responses coming from the other Western allies and from the UN, and despite the known risk of alienating the Russians, Mr Chirac persisted in demanding a tougher line.

If his original exhortations have been exposed as somewhat unrealistic, the French President has none the less emerged as the "lone" voice of morality - and totally unapologetic. This image has been defined not only by his stance on Bosnia, but also by his decision to resume nuclear tests in the Pacific, and his dogged reaction to the worldwide campaign against him. He promised in his election manifesto that he would consider the question, and once elected he took precisely four weeks to make up his mind, announcing his decision on the eve of a trip to America to visit Washington and the United Nations and to attend the G7 summit in Cannes. To have postponed the announcement, his entourage suggested, would have been dishonest. It might also have been diplomatic, but the timing smacked of a different sort of diplomacy - a statement of power by a leader who considered himself equal to any on the world stage.

He has remained unmoved by the ensuing outrage, and has now publicly reiterated on at least four occasions the reasons for his decision (the "reliability and credibility" of France's nuclear deterrent), and has said it is "irrevocable".

Not content with this, Mr Chirac ordered the French navy into action against the Greenpeace ship, Rainbow Warrior II, 10 years after French commandos killed a Greenpeace photographer in the original Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour. Another direct statement that Mr Chirac's France was not to be messed around with.

Nowhere has Mr Chirac's contempt for diplomatic niceties been more apparent than in matters European. Better no agreement than a fudged agreement seems to be a Chiraquien principle, one that has so far cost Europe its united-against-Britain front on the single currency and the Schengen agreement abolishing border controls, and has also tarnished the Franco-German alliance.

Between his first Euro-dinner in Paris and the final press conference at Cannes, Mr Chirac delivered himself of some plain speaking ("insults", said the targets, off the record) towards the Netherlands, Belgium, Italy and Greece. John Major - already isolated and perhaps inured to this sort of thing - was unfazed, speaking happily of "a breath of fresh air" from the Elysee.

Even the bomb at St Michel station last week, it could be argued, might have had something to do with Mr Chirac. It was, after all, when he was prime minister a decade ago that France suffered its worst outbreak of terrorism, from the Middle East. Then, his conduct of state affairs had fostered an atmosphere in which public pronouncements stressed no compromise, while wheeling and dealing went on behind the scenes.

Last week there were reports that secret talks in Paris between the Algerian military government and its Islamic fundamentalist opponents broke down shortly before the assassination of an Islamic cleric and the St Michel bomb. Paris says it has no intention of intervening in Algerian affairs, but perhaps Mr Chirac is not so remote from matters Algerian as his staff profess.

No one should be surprised by Mr Chirac's conduct. The trend of his foreign policy - making France's voice heard in the world, protecting French interests and sovereignty - was evident in his pre-election statements. It just tended to be obscured by the voters' preoccupation with what they saw as France's pressing problems: unemployment and social divisions.

Nor is there reason to complain of inconsistency in his views. His emphasis on national honour and independence has been clear down the years. And if the social concern on which he arguably won the presidency is new-found, he would not see it as incompatible with his wish for France to be great again. A strong country, he argues, needs a strong, united people. If there are no common values, no acknowledged national purpose, then the nation is destined to be weak.

One of the central economic arguments of his election campaign - that France's Fr300bn domestic budget deficit could be substantially reduced by reducing unemployment, and that subsidies for job creation would be money well spent - was not a left-wing argument coming from a right-winger (as critics claimed), but consistent with Mr Chirac's "one-nation" philosophy.

The exact nature of his one-nationism is still to be determined, for there is a distinct hint in some of his pronouncements that some are more equal than others. On the one hand, he is stripping the presidency of some of its frills and expenses, and trying to bring the government and the governed closer. On the other, he retains a strong and very formal conception of the dignity of the presidency.

His protection of his Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, over his privileged housing arrangements (elegant Paris flat rented at a council house price from the city) included a defence of privileges for the elite because of their "special value" to the nation.

Mr Chirac appears to see no contradiction, just as he apparently sees no contradiction between his stated support for the European Union and the Western alliance, and his insistence that membership (preferably leadership) of these groups should not impair France's national interests in any way.

In Europe, this combination of plain speaking, populism and national superiority was perhaps last seen in Margaret Thatcher. It is worth reflecting what might have happened if the two of them had coincided in office. Would Jacques Chirac have been a man she could do business with, or would it have been war across the Channel? With Mr Chirac, as with Mrs Thatcher, war means war.