Dignity, nation and De Gaulle

Jacques Chirac has already set a distinctive tone - and it is not just rhetoric, says Mary Dejevsky
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The Independent Online
On the night of Jacques Chirac's election as president of France, there was dancing in the Place de la Concorde until three in the morning, in what was later described as the biggest spontaneous celebration in Paris since the city's liberation more than 50 years ago. Among the many flags unfurled in triumph that night were several bearing the cross of Lorraine, the symbol of the Resistance that became the symbol also of Charles de Gaulle. These had come, the mainly young flag-wavers told anyone who asked, from the attics and cellars of their grandparents. Could it be that Gaullism had skipped a generation, and was on its way back?

Today, as Mr Chirac presides over his first Bastille Day festivities, with another six years and 10 months of his presidency still to run, the consequences of his election and the national clamour for change that produced it are already making themselves felt. And while "Gaullism" itself may be more of a label to link a set of priorities than an all-embracing ideological system, certain aspects of it are certainly back - to the potential discomfort of many, especially elsewhere in Europe.

Since Mr Chirac took office, his cultivation of "Gaullism" has been conspicuous and deliberate. In less than eight weeks since taking office, he has visited de Gaulle's grave at Colombey-des-deux-eglises twice.

Mr Chirac has scattered his speeches and statements with Gaullist allusions. Presiding at the military funeral of French soldiers killed in Bosnia, he said they had died for a "certain idea of France". His speech there was charged with respect for the dignity, national pride and sovereignty of France. French troops, Mr Chirac promised, would never again be "humiliated".

Proposed changes to the constitution and to the balance of institutional power between the executive and the legislature have been justified by reference to de Gaulle, as have Mr Chirac's stated intentions of returning to a more frugal presidential style by cutting protocol and ordaining simpler food at government functions.

For Mr Chirac to take the General as a model for purely rhetorical purposes - to set symbolic distance between his presidency and the 14-year marathon of Francois Mitterrand for instance, or to try to unite a politically divided France behind its shared historical memory - is one thing. To have those principles apparently dictate state policy, however, in quite different social and political circumstances, is something else. Yet this is what seems to be happening, and great breaches are opening up as a result on questions where there has been a high degree of international cohesion and co-operation.

Consider some of the decisions taken in recent weeks. On the eve of Mr Chirac's first presidential visit to the United States and his first global gathering - the G7 summit - he announced that France would resume nuclear testing, breaking its commitment to the international moratorium. Last week he authorised the forcible boarding of the Greenpeace ship Rainbow Warrior II, an operation that was carried out 10 years to the day since French secret agents blew up the original Rainbow Warrior.

On Europe, Mr Chirac has unilaterally postponed implementation of the Schengen agreement on lifting border controls, so breaking - at least in the German view - a treaty commitment. He has been responsible, almost single-handedly, for postponing the date agreed at Maastricht for introducing a single European currency. He has also spoken of elevating France's bilateral relations with Britain and Spain within Europe to the "special" level that is currently unique to the French-German axis, so seeming to challenge the idea of a Franco-German "core" of Europe.

On Europe's most intractable foreign policy crisis, the civil war in Yugoslavia, Mr Chirac has overruled his commanders on the need for French troops to fight back when attacked and taken the initiative in organising a rapid reaction force that will be separate from the British- led one, wear French uniforms, be effectively under French command, and may or may not be authorised to use force to accomplish objectives that the UN, Britain and certainly Russia would prefer were attained diplomatically.

This week, for good measure, he responded to the fall of Srebrenica by calling at once for the re-establishment of all "safe areas", "by force if necessary", and returned to his idea that a route to Sarajevo should be reopened, again leaving the use of force an option.

The reasons given to explain or justify all these decisions have been variations on the theme of the need to protect France's national sovereignty, independence and dignity - or that of the "international community", where this includes France. And while almost all of these decisions has caused some outcry or dissent abroad, at home they have gone almost unchallenged, if not positively approved.

The country that has had relatively few difficulties with the new French president is Britain, whose sense of national sovereignty is as highly developed as Mr Chirac's. This does not mean that there will be agreement between France and Britain about the future of Europe, but it does mean that on the matter of preserving national sovereignty Britain now has an ally and that the balance between "internationalism" and "nationalism" in Europe may be shifting.

Whether Mr Chirac will prove to be on the right side of history in his domestic policy and style, however, is less clear. He caught a strong national mood with the policies on which he was elected president: the need for "change", to reduce unemployment and to heal social divisions. But he raised expectations very high, perhaps too high, and disappointment already threatens. To many, the government's high-profile job creation schemes seem so far to have brought layers of committees, sheaves of paper, many ministerial photo opportunities, and tax increases - but not jobs.

Mr Chirac, however, evinces a very clear idea of what a president of France should be, and has set himself at one remove from these very practical problems. To judge by his statements before and after election, he sees the president as the embodiment of his nation and its dignity; he believes he should behave with full regard to protocol, but also with brutal frankness, including to fellow leaders who are his peers; and he sees the constitutional position of the president as pinnacle and arbiter between the different institutions of state.

Thus, in the past eight weeks Mr Chirac has set very definite policy lines and chaired meetings, while leaving implementation to his government, led by the prime minister, Alain Juppe.

Mr Chirac's concept of the presidency and of presidential dignity, though, seems in many respects old-fashioned, and could be hard to sustain. Already, both his successor as mayor of Paris, Jean Tiberi, and his prime minister and protege, Mr Juppe, have been embroiled in scandals concerning the provision of subsidised housing to members of the elite and their relatives. Although Mr Chirac and his policies as mayor of Paris are central to the affair, his name has not been mentioned.

But the fact that the scandal progressed at all beyond the standard disclaimer - "this is a private matter" - and the fact that Mr Juppe felt obliged to go on television last week to defend himself, offers a hint that France's highly protected elite may be growing vulnerable as a caste. Their right to a whole range of privileges, including a fast and secure career track, special subsidised housing, and instant access to the best medical care, is starting to be questioned.

In pursuing a brand of Gaullism that not only stresses national sovereignty and the sanctity of the presidency, but also professes one-nation social cohesion, Mr Chirac could be storing up trouble for himself well before his presidency crosses into the 21st century. Between the champagne and the fireworks of Bastille Day, however, he could well reflect that the sanctity of national institutions and social revolution have always sat ill together.