Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

France Grabs Bullhorn, Yells across Atlantic Filling a Vacuum in Leadership, French President Chirac Takes Charge of 'Fragile' US-European Relations

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

France Grabs Bullhorn, Yells across Atlantic Filling a Vacuum in Leadership, French President Chirac Takes Charge of 'Fragile' US-European Relations

Article excerpt

FRENCH leadership may seem an oxymoron in a century when German tanks rolled through Paris to conquer it and American tanks to free it. But France today can claim Europe's toughest ruler, one who has no qualms about telling America what Europe wants.

That says as much about other Western countries as it does about France. "I'm not sure the French really want to lead Europe; it's more that they're filling a vacuum," says Simon Sarfati, director of European Studies at the Center for Strategic and International Studies here.

"This may be the most significant period in Western Europe in 40 years," Mr. Sarfati adds. "The nature of US-European relations is very fragile."

Yet neither the sedate German Chancellor Helmut Kohl, nor Britain's beleaguered Prime Minister John Major, has taken charge. "The Germans have history as an obstacle, and the British assume that the way to be 'loud' is to have tea in Washington," Sarfati says.

That leaves "being loud," as he puts it, to France. And new President Jacques Chirac is using a megaphone. Despite some recent bruisings, notably over his decision to resume nuclear testing, Mr. Chirac has the advantage of a fresh political mandate after May elections. "There are several issues Chirac is raising, with a French accent, but nonetheless a European tone," Sarfati says.

The hottest security issue for Europe today is the crisis in its backyard - the Balkans. Many Europeans say the US Congress doesn't know what it is doing, Sarfati suggests, in trying to lift the arms embargo on Bosnia. Like many observers, he says that would bring "a lot of body bags" by triggering a United Nations withdrawal from Bosnia - with the help of NATO and 25,000 US ground troops. "It's not going to be a clean extraction," Sarfati says.

A moral stand

European countries with UN peacekeepers favor beefing up the UN operation instead of a pullout. Here, too, France has gone furthest out on a limb. Chirac is "taking a moral stand on Bosnia, saying that this kind of inhumanity can't be tolerated, and trying to force the West to take a stand," says Gayden Thompson, director of the program of NATO and European Security at the Atlantic Council of the United States.

Not that there hasn't been some French ambivalence on Bosnia. When two Frenchmen were killed on the same day in Bosnia, Chirac made some tough statements to the Bosnian Serbs - in line with his reputation for sounding off when he thinks the occasion warrants. …

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