Veil is drawn over `scuffle diplomacy'

Click to follow
Jacques Chirac was all over the front pages of France's national newspapers yesterday, having headed news bulletins throughout the previous evening with what were described as "the major diplomatic incidents in Jerusalem". "Chirac wages his intifada," said the front-page headline on the left- of-centre Liberation, above a picture of the French president pushing Israeli security guards away.

Others contented themselves with "Chirac's fit of rage" and the satirical weekly, Le Canard Enchaine (which, by happy chance, appears on Wednesdays) offered: "Nervous diplomacy, the mediator gets angry" and a crop of cartoons. One, depicting Mr Chirac and Mr Netanyahu side by side, had a bystander saying: "They'll need a mediator just to get them to shake hands".

Aside from enjoying the drama, however, the French media seemed reluctant to take a stand one way or the other on Mr Chirac's demarche. To be sure, there had been diplomatic incidents, but both sides had decided the argument should be closed, and most commentators respectfully followed suit.

The "line", in so far as there was one, was expressed by pro- minent commentator, Alain Duhamel, speaking on the radio station, Europe 1. "The explanation for the incident in Jerusalem is much less Chirac's style - warmth, spontaneity, straight-talking and seeking contact with the people - than a basic difference of opinion. The Israelis regard Jerusalem as their capital and their sovereignty over it as indivisible.

"Europeans in general, and France in particular, do not accept the annexation of the Arab part of Jerusalem and don't recognise the thrice-Holy City as the capital of Israel. The incident in Jerusalem will from now on signify this difference."

The only hints of criticism came, predictably, but gently, from the left of centre. In Liberation, the paper's foreign affairs commentator, Jacques Amalric, asked whether, even if one believed that the a Palestinian state was desirable in the long term, it was "judicious" to propose one's own services as "mediator" - or, in Elysee parlance, "facilitator of peace".

A similar tone was adopted by the leader of the Socialist Party, Lionel Jospin, who appeared to question the wisdom of Mr Chirac's outburst, noting that "diplomacy is a difficult art". Mr Jospin spent his early career in the foreign ministry.

The wider public seemed almost uninterested, preoccupied with matters closer to home, such as jobs, pay and strikes. The cheering from the home crowd that might once have accompanied a French leader on foreign trips now seems muted, despite the high foreign policy profile Mr Chirac has adopted since his election.

Even those taking note of Mr Chirac's performance seemed uncertain which of two opposing instincts to follow: one was to shout "hurrah" for a straight-talking, France-promoting leader unafraid to take on Israelis, their security services and, indirectly, the Americans - even if his strongest words were uttered in the enemy's tongue, English.

The other instinct, however, was to worry that Mr Chirac's unbridled outspokenness might be more of a liability than an asset. No media commentators were indelicate enough to enumerate examples of Chiraquian diplomacy, but if they had, they might have included some of the following:

His lambasting of The Netherlands' prime minister for running a "drugs state" at his first EU dinner at the Elysee last year; the timing of the nuclear test announcement to coincide with the anniversary of the sinking of the Rainbow Warrior; his accusation of "spinelessness" against other Western powers over Bosnia; his failure to warn the Germans that he was ending military service in France, and his ridiculing of Italy's determination to be among the first to join a single European currency.

In each case, diplomats were left to sort out the mess. At the Quai d'Orsay, there is said to be deep gloom.

Before Mr Chirac set off for the Middle East, one foreign ministry official was quoted as saying that "he was poorly prepared" and that starting the tour in Damascus was calculated to "infuriate the Israelis and weaken the resolve of moderate Arabs".

"You can't," he reportedly said, "present yourself as Assad's best friend and then aspire to play the role of mediator."

If only Mr Chirac could have foreseen what would happen in Israel.