Denis MacShane: The president who let down his nation

Unlike his predecessors, Chirac has never had a clear idea of Europe
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The Independent Online

As France limps unhappily to its rendezvous with European destiny on Sunday week, the French people are voting on everything except the contents of the new EU treaty itself. Above all, they are voting on their president, Jacques Chirac, a man who has bestrode his country's political scene for longer than any other European politician. Chirac was the prime minister of France when Harold Wilson occupied Downing Street, Bill Clinton was an ambitious Arkansas wannabe, and Helmut Kohl was a minor provincial politician in Germany.

As France limps unhappily to its rendezvous with European destiny on Sunday week, the French people are voting on everything except the contents of the new EU treaty itself. Above all, they are voting on their president, Jacques Chirac, a man who has bestrode his country's political scene for longer than any other European politician. Chirac was the prime minister of France when Harold Wilson occupied Downing Street, Bill Clinton was an ambitious Arkansas wannabe, and Helmut Kohl was a minor provincial politician in Germany.

Chirac is all physical contact - a face that breaks into a wide grin of enthusiasm, hands that stretch out to touch flesh, and a need to consume food and drink without adding pounds as his energy burns away the beer he always drinks at the endless meals around which Europe's leaders decide the future of the EU.

France has had five presidents since de Gaulle took control of the country at the end of the unhappy Fourth Republic in 1958. The first four left a transformed France. And then Jacques Chirac was elected in 1995. As he looks back on 10 years in office, what has been achieved? Pas beaucoup. Not since pre-war days has France had such an unhappy decade. Growth has been inadequate. Corporatist protectionism has helped those with contacts or state jobs, but left permanent, enduring high unemployment.

Paris or Cannes are spectacular to visit. But leave the autoroutes for a medium-sized French town with its chronic unemployment and welfare dependency, or go to the social housing estates where 5 million French Muslims exist miserably, and a very different France - immobile, unmodernised, and without clear direction or purpose can be found.

In politics, Chirac broke the first rule of power - keep it - when he accepted the advice of his closest adviser, Dominique de Villepin, and dissolved Parliament in 1997, He hoped to get a clear right-wing majority. He ended up with a Socialist government which imposed a straight-jacket law on working time, leaving France's labour market without room to manoeuvre in the new globalised economy. Many small French cities and towns now depend on their daily flights from EasyJet and Ryanair, and the money that half a million Brits with second homes in France pump into rural economies. French intellectuals who once dominated the world with their ideas and writing simply stopped producing any work that anyone wanted to read. Many of the best minds in France left to work elsewhere - nearly all seeking refuge in the dreaded Anglo-Saxon economies.

Chirac could have taken a firm stand on Iraq, either by making clear he did not believe Saddam had WMD or offering an alternative strategy of pressure to make Saddam conform to UN law. Instead, he agreed with Tony Blair and George Bush that Iraq had WMD and turned the UN into an arena of point-scoring, ending with the famous veto, announced to a pair of television interviewers almost as an afterthought.

East European capitals like Warsaw and Prague had traditionally been in love with Paris, but were deeply offended at the condescension on offer from the French president when they joined the EU. They were further wounded when he refused to follow Britain's lead and allow Polish or Czech citizens the chance to work in France.

To persuade the French to vote Yes to the new constitutional treaty, Chirac appeared to have been infected by the British disease of Brussels-bashing. He started criticising the new commission president Barroso and denounced the modest proposals - agreed by France when Romano Prodi was commission president - to allow competition in economic areas like real estate, ski instructors, or building work.

Unlike his predecessors, Chirac has never had a clear idea of Europe. Like many British Conservatives, Europe for Chirac is a problem rather than a solution, a threat to national sovereignty and national tradition, rather than a new way of adding value to what the nation does.

France needs a new way of relating to its neighbours in the enlarging Europe and a new world of open trade, travel and ideas. Whichever way the French vote on the new treaty, France will require a period of modernisation, reform and renewal under new leadership. France will come back and surprise Europe and the world by a new vigour. And the sooner the better - for Europe and for all of us in Britain who love France and are perplexed and dismayed at her current state.

The writer was minister for Europe from October 2002 to May 2005

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