Chirac invokes history and maintains high moral tone

Click to follow
President Jacques Chirac called on the Western democracies yesterday to ''learn the lessons of history'' and join France in halting the ethnic cleansing in Bosnia. Warning that ''the values on which our democracies are founded are being flouted in Europe before our very eyes,'' he renewed his appeal to France's allies ''not to accept the role of passive onlookers or accomplices to the unacceptable''.

''If we have the will,'' Mr Chirac added, ''we can stop an enterprise that threatens yet again to destroy our values and which is coming ever closer to threatening Europe as a whole.''

He made his comments at a ceremony to commemorate the deportation of 15,000 Jews from Paris 53 years ago. In his address to survivors of the deportation, relatives of deportees and Jewish leaders, Mr Chirac distinguished himself from his predecessor, Francois Mitterrand, by acknowledging the responsibility of the French state, and French people, for the deportations. ''These dark hours,'' he said, ''will always defile our history and are an insult to our past and our traditions."

The burden of history has lain heavy on Mr Chirac in recent days. On Friday, France's national day, the President compared the responsibility of Western leaders now with that which faced Neville Chamberlain and Edouard Daladier at Munich in 1938, implying that a Western failure to oppose the Bosnian Serbs would be appeasement.

Ever since Mr Chirac responded to the fall of Srebrenica last Tuesday by offering French troops to assist in an operation to recapture the enclave, scarcely a day has gone by without the President or one of his ministers warning of the ''lessons that would have to be drawn'' if the West refused to act ''firmly'' to preserve the safe zones in Bosnia.

As Mr Chirac admitted in his Bastille Day press conference, his appeals had gone almost unheeded; none of the countries to which he had appealed individually - Britain, Germany and the United States - had expressed any willingness to assist in a joint operation to re-establish the fallen ''safe zone'' of Srebrenica. Not only was France alone, but it was being publicly criticised for broaching an operation that was not realistic and for voicing high-flown generalities.

So why did Mr Chirac even embark on such an unrealistic project, let alone persist? Part of the answer may lie in his own impetuosity and personal moral outrage. His initial talk of recapturing Srebrenica only hours after the town had fallen seemed an extempore remark, not thought through. Gradually, both he and his Defence Minister, Charles Millon, have dropped the references to Srebrenica and seem ready to restrict themselves to improved defence of Gorazde and Sarajevo, but the high moral tone remains.

A second clue may lie in the tone of his speech at the deportation ceremony yesterday. Mr Chirac clearly sees it as the role of the President of France to take the high moral ground; to be, as it were, the conscience of the nation, if not of Europe and the world. Even if nothing can be done, even if no one can be prepared to join him, it is his duty to say what should be done morally.

A domestic political consideration could also be suggested: that by presenting himself as advocate of the Bosnian Muslims, Mr Chirac could hope to defuse any criticism of passivity that might come from France's large and restive Islamic community - or from those concerned at recent electoral successes of France's National Front.