Political turmoil in France and Germany continues to play havoc with E.U.-U.S. relations. German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder could be out of office by September, French President Jacques Chirac, who we'll have to kick around for two more years, will find himself even more isolated and will have to make a clear choice: either water down his positions or become totally insignificant in the world arena.
"Plus ça change et plus c'est la même chose." By appointing as his prime minister the man considered France's most virulent anti-U.S. politician, Dominique de Villepin, Chirac is sending the wrong signal. This is the man who on the eve of the Iraq war was asked who he wanted to win, and he flatly answered: "I don't know." It's difficult to be optimistic about a thaw in French-U.S. relations.
Still, ever since the charm offensive launched by the Bush administration earlier this year, there's been some increase in the level of good will. Courtesy is back in place, and on some things the two leaders have agreed to disagree. But will Villepin ruin everything?
It does not seem likely. First, Villepin's main short-term goal is to fix France's economy and therefore focus on domestic issues. And since he has almost no experience whatsoever in these matters, being a life-long diplomat and foreign affairs expert, his time is going to be consumed by learning economics. He will not have time to meddle in the foreign policy arena, which is traditionally the realm of the French president.
So, who is going to be in charge?
The new foreign minister, Philippe Douste-Blazy? Common sense tells us no. In fact Douste-Blazy is a doctor and has been health minister off and on since 1993, with a stint at the Culture Ministry. He has not a hint of experience in diplomacy and foreign affairs and landed the job mostly for political reasons.
Thus, the real man in charge of shaping France's foreign policy is none other than Chirac himself. He is first and foremost a cunning politician and a cynical realist. Keep in mind that according to many in Chirac's entourage, including ex-premier Edouard Balladur, Villepin was mostly responsible for opposing the US during the U.N.-Iraq crisis. Even though Chirac was against the intervention in Iraq, he might just have stopped at expressing his opposition rather than go overboard like Villepin did.
The first major sign of diplomatic cooperation after the Iraq episode occurred in September 2004 when France co-sponsored with the US a U.N. Security Council resolution asking Syria to withdraw all its troops from Lebanon. The reason had a name: Rafik Hariri, the murdered ex- Lebanon prime minister and one of Chirac's best friends.
According to an ex-French foreign minister, Hariri was behind Chirac's action against the Syrians; another French diplomat added that: "...before, all we did for Syria was because of Hariri; now everything we do against Syria is because of Hariri again." Indeed after Hariri's murder in February 2005, most probably by Syrian-allied elements, France and the US redoubled their pressure to kick Syria out of Lebanon. They succeeded in part, as Syrian troops have left, but Syrian agents are still in Lebanon and Syria does not want let go.
This dossier proves that when French and U.S. diplomats want to work together, they get good results. Of course, there is disagreement between the two over Hezbollah because France does not consider the Shia militia a terrorist organization while the US rightly sees it as the "A-team of terrorists."
But one of the most significant changes in Chirac's stance was his invitation for Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to visit him in Paris. And here's why: Chirac dislikes Sharon and views him as a bully. Until very recently Chirac blindly thought that Sharon was not sincere about his disengagement plan, which he announced back in December 2003. Also, the recent history of French-Israeli relations has been tense, to say the least. It's not by chance that ex-Palestinian leader Yassir Arafat passed away in a French hospital. Chirac and Arafat had a particular bond and France has a very biased pro-Palestinian position. For instance when most world leaders including Arab ones were not meeting with Arafat, French leaders were among the only ones who made a point of visiting him.
The tone of the invitation to Sharon is very surprisingly cordial: Chirac wrote, "I would be particularly happy to welcome you so we can talk about our bilateral relations and regional issues." Chirac called the disengagement from Gaza "a determined and courageous decision," and added "more than ever, France along with its European partners, wants to stand by you."
This invitation is meant to make France and Europe appear as a more honest broker. There's a change of heart from the Chirac administration mostly because there is no other choice. By charming Israel, Chirac does not want to be left out and become irrelevant.
But more than anything, this should be considered as a positive step towards Washington. This kind of constructive initiative will surely benefit the working relations between the two countries.
In light of domestic troubles and potential European isolation, France has decided to warm up to Washington. Chirac has not become overnight a convinced Atlanticist but most probably deemed it in France's own interests to turn into a constructive ally of the US. This kind of modus vivendi for future French-US relations is acceptable to Chirac. And now that the Iraq controversy seems far behind us, the French-U.S. boat may enjoy smooth sailing with the occasional storms until at least 2007.
Olivier Guitta is a freelance writer specializing in Europe and the Middle East.