Maghreb Mirror: Can Jacques Chirac Fill Charles De Gaulle's Shoes?

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Maghreb Mirror: Can Jacques Chirac Fill Charles De Gaulle's Shoes?

By Aicha Lemsine

Will newly elected French President Jacques Chirac prove to be the new Charles De Gaulle? Observers predict Chirac, like De Gaulle, will follow a more pro-Arab foreign policy than that of his predecessor, Francois Mitterand. Others say the arrival of Chirac may reshuffle the Algerian deck just as De Gaulle's return from political exile in 1958 marked a turning point in the Algerian revolution and eventual independence for the country in 1962. Nearly everyone agrees that substantive changes--with serious repercussions for the Middle East--are in store for French policy.

Jacques Chirac's Gaullist political vision will be implemented by his prime minister, Alain Juppe, who established a reputation for competence, pragmatism and political honesty as foreign minister in the cabinet of outgoing Premier Edouard Balladur, Chirac's conservative rival during the recent presidential race. Juppe has promised "profound changes, implemented gradually" for French foreign policy, and appears to share his president's worldview.

Like De Gaulle, Jacques Chirac stands for a strong, independent and united Europe--with France playing a leading role, of course. Another of Chirac's priorities, though, is the Middle East and North Africa, which he sees as vital to France for both geostrategic and economic reasons.

For many years, Jacques Chirac has tried to understand the Middle East not simply by talking to its political leaders, but by studying the region's history and culture. This is in marked contrast to Mitterand, who concerned himself with sub-Saharan Africa and had little interest in the Arab world (which returned the favor). One of Mitterand's close friends, lawyer Gisele Halimi, once told me, "Mitterand likes to be amused and the Arab heads of state, according to him, are boring."

Chirac, on the other hand, posseses an immense intellectual interest in great world civilizations. It is this curiosity which helps explain Chirac's fascination with Chinese and Japanese culture.

"Sheikh Iraq"

While he is now billed in the French press as a Sinophile, in the 1970s Chirac enjoyed a reputation as an amateur Arabist. The rising Gaullist star went so far as to take Arabic lessons and, in a clever twist on his name, earned the media sobriquet "Sheikh Iraq" for his close personal ties with Saddam Hussain. This was the era of the Iraqi economic boom and Saddam was in favor in other world capitals besides Paris, it should be noted.

The Arab world, so close geographically to France, poses three important issues for Chirac. First, there is the question of the Middle East peace process and particularly continued French support for Yasser Arafat's Palestinian National Authority in the face of rising religious extremism. Aside from bilateral relations, France has significant input when it comes to European Union activities, including EU economic assistance for the occupied territories.

Second, Chirac must tackle the United Nations' economic blockade of Iraq. Given Chirac's past ties to Baghdad and Alain Juppe's continual pressure as foreign minister to lift the four-year-old embargo, the future tack of France's Iraq policy seems clear. French economic concerns, including the Elf and Total oil companies, are champing at the bit to sign lucrative reconstruction contracts with Iraq once the embargo is lifted and Baghdad can resume its petroleum exports.

Finally there is the crisis across the Mediterranean. Algeria and France again find themselves confronted with ghosts from the past--a staggering trade imbalance, errors of judgment, political posturing and chilling violence--some 40 years after the outbreak of the Algerian revolution. Back then, the French military response to the rebellion was crafted by a young interior minister named Francois Mitterand, who recently departed the Elysee Palace as the longest-serving president of the Fifth Republic. …