The Saturday Prole: JACQUES CHIRAC - Last Throw for Europe's Survivor

Article excerpt

When President Jacques Chirac was re-elected three years ago, the defeated Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, made a prediction. Within two years, M. Chirac would cause a political train wreck.

Why? Because throughout his career " the longest still active political career in Europe " M. Chirac has caused a train wreck within two years of taking any national office. (He was a failed Prime Minister in 1974- 6 and 1986-8; he made a disastrous start to his first presidential term in 1995-7, stumbling into cohabitation with the Left.)

M. Jospin, it seems, was right but 12 months out. The lights are on red; the train is heading for the buffers. If the opinion polls are to be believed, France may vote against the European Union constitution a week from tomorrow, plunging the EU into confusion and British europhobes into an orgasm of ironic delight.

President Chirac has made it clear that he will not resign, if defeated (despite the precedent set by his alleged mentor, Charles de Gaulle, who resigned after losing a far less significant referendum in 1969). Nonetheless, the remaining two years of M. Chirac's presidency would be a withered arm: a political cul de sac. His occupation of France's highest political office " the pinnacle he spent a lifetime knifing friends and misappropriating taxpayers' money to attain " would go down as a miserable failure.

The Chirac era would be seen as a dozen wasted years, a time when France drifted into the 21st century without a vision for the future and ended up by destroying, or at least crippling, the united Europe which previous French generations had done so much to build. Of course, Chirac being Chirac, the president would try to bounce back. He was viscerally against the EU in 1979 and 1995 and passionately in favour of the EU in 1988 and 2002. The day after a French non, M. Chirac would, doubtless, vary his Euro-political geometry once again. He would present himself as the natural leader of the Nonistes, or at least the only man capable of putting the European and French trains back on the tracks.

If France votes yes " and the Ouiistes may still pull it off " M. Chirac will try to claim a personal triumph. He will nominate a new prime minister and try to make yet another change of direction. He will be tempted to run again for the presidency in 2007, at the age of 74. That would be a pity. French electors (who adore a plausible rogue) have forgiven M. Chirac many things in the past. The president's responsibility for the present mess " and his weightlessness during the campaign " suggest that, yes or no next week, it is time for France to move on.

Two years ago Jacques Chirac had his finest hour. After he resisted the Bush-Blair war in Iraq, he was hailed in France, but not just in France, as a strategic visionary. His standing in the polls rose to the sweltering 80s. After three decades of throwaway politics, he had invented, maybe by accident, a 'Chirac Doctrine'. The world, said M. Chirac, was no longer a question of east-west or north-south. It was a 'multi-polar' world, which meant that Europeans must build a common front, not to thwart the US at every turn, but to avoid being bullied into ideological and hare- brained adventures like the Iraq war.

Two years on, the Chirac doctrine still looks sensible enough. How come the president has failed to persuade the French electors, who cheered 'multi-polarism' in 2002, that the French 'pole' is Europe and that a strong European pole needs a stronger, larger European Union? Why has France had such difficulty in swallowing the idea of a constitutional declaration of 'values' and a simpler decision-making process for a 25- nation EU?

In his first TV debate, M. Chirac tried to make this point. France should be confident and bold, he said. France should grab a share of the leadership in this new Europe. France had no reason to fear for its future. …