The Chirac Doctrine; France Gives the Nod to Turkish Membership in the European Union. What Is Paris Up To?

Newsweek International, August 2, 2004 | Go to article overview

The Chirac Doctrine; France Gives the Nod to Turkish Membership in the European Union. What Is Paris Up To?


Byline: Christopher Dickey (With Owen Matthews in Istanbul and Tracy McNicoll in Paris)

When French presidents invoke "the national interest," often as not it means they've cut a deal they'd really rather not explain. But when Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan came courting President Jacques Chirac in Paris last week, hoping the ever-reluctant French would back Turkey's bid to join the European Union, the cash-and-carry policymaking was right out front.

As one senior Turkish official told NEWSWEEK, the intention was to "spread a package of economic benefits" before Chirac that "France could not reject." Sure enough, Turkish Airlines announced it would purchase 36 Airbus planes worth more than $1.5 billion. Erdogan also hinted he might be in the market for France's big-ticket nuclear technology. And just as surely, after years of implicit opposition and fence-straddling, Chirac suddenly decided that support for Turkey's candidacy suits "the national interests" of France.

No, it wasn't a pretty picture. But, then again, it wasn't the whole picture. As Europe has expanded its frontiers, the eternal French game for power and influence inside the Union has moved to the countries just outside. Relations with Turkey, Israel, Iraq--indeed, the whole of the Middle East and North Africa--are in play. Entering the waning years of his career, Chirac unsurprisingly places new emphasis on his prerogatives as the maker of French foreign policy, and thus on his legacy as statesman. Against the odds, he seeks to create a tight-knit new Europe, one that will be an alternate (if not opposite) pole of power to the United States. Simultaneously he looks to limit, if not thwart, American influence in Europe's Muslim backyard. And opportunist that he is, of course, he hopes to do all this while remaining popular with French voters.

It's a delicate balancing act, this Chirac Doctrine. His latest stand on Turkey is emblematic. It may be cynical, or statesmanly, or both. Certainly it's not popular. Some 60 percent of French voters say they oppose Turkish EU membership; for many on the French right, including Chirac's own coalition party, the notion is anathema. Chirac himself has always been a champion of a tightly integrated Europe--with France in the driver's seat. The admission of a populous, nationalistic, Muslim Turkey (with the most votes in the Union) would certainly dilute Paris's influence. And although France and Germany make a show of their cozy cooperation these days, their inherent rivalry remains. The Turks' vast economic, emigrant and historical ties to Germany probably would tip Europe's core balance of power even further toward Berlin.

If Chirac's goal really is to bring the Turks onboard--and emphasize that "if"--then as a practical political matter the timing could hardly be worse. The French public already is grumbling about the last round of EU enlargement. French workers hear the sucking sound of their jobs moving toward the low-wage East, and under the new European constitution France won't have the veto it once did, which allowed Paris to demand exceptional protections. …

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