TCS Daily

The Chirac Doctrine

By Olivier Guitta - September 22, 2005 12:00 AM

Under President Jacques Chirac, French foreign policy has become increasingly assertive - although one French academic recently described its raison d'être as to "oppose just to exist." But such descriptions are not entirely fair. While Chirac inherited a French foreign policy already tilted toward the Arab world, his pursuit of close personal ties to Arab leaders and his outreach to Islamists, rejectionist Arab states, and groups considered terrorists by the U.S. government is part of a broader strategy to increase French influence in the region.

The French approach to the Middle East changed after the Israeli victory in the 1967 Six-Day war. Then-President Charles De Gaulle began to espouse the decidedly pro-Arab policy that still prevails. According to the newsmagazine Le Point, De Gaulle explained, "The Arabs have for themselves their numbers, space, and time." It was a Machiavellian calculation. He pursued what he saw as a long-term strategy: sacrificing good ties with Israel in order to win the good will of the more populous and oil-rich Arab world.

Upon assuming the presidency in 1995, Chirac sought even closer ties to the Arab world. Speaking in Cairo in April 1996, he declared, "France's Arab policy must be a dimension of its foreign policy. I wish to give it a new boost." The French government expanded its trade and cultural exchanges with the Arab world. By 2002, France was among the top three trade partners for most Arab countries: first in Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, and Saddam's Iraq, second in Lebanon, and Syria, and third in Egypt.

Chirac won Arab support as he repeatedly juxtaposed his pro-Arab stance with Washington's support for Israel. His popularity has become so great in recent years that a number of Palestinian families have named their sons "Chirac." During Ramadan in 2003, merchants in Cairo named the best quality dates-the traditional food with which Arabs break the sunrise to sunset fast- "Chiracs" to honor the French president. A May 2004 Zogby survey conducted in six Arab countries, found Chirac at the top of the list of world leaders in Egypt, Lebanon, and Morocco, and third in Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and the United Arab Emirates. In contrast, the same polls found U.S. President George W. Bush the least favorite world leader after only Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

Chirac has formed close personal relationships with a number of Arab leaders, including not only Arafat and the late prime minister of Lebanon, Rafik al-Hariri, but also with the late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, his son and successor Bashar, as well as former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. These personal relationships have become the backbone of French Middle East policy.

Perhaps Chirac's deepest friendship has been with Saddam Hussein. The two first met in December 1974 when then-Prime Minister Chirac visited Baghdad to negotiate trade agreements, including the delivery of a nuclear reactor later destroyed by an Israeli air raid in 1981. When Hussein visited France the following September-his only visit to a Western country-Chirac said, "I welcome you as my personal friend. I assure you of my esteem, my consideration, and my affection."

Hussein's investment in Chirac proved fruitful for the Iraqi leader. In 1998, when asked how patient he was prepared to be with Saddam Hussein, Chirac responded, "When it comes to humanitarian affairs, France's patience is limitless." In the months preceding the 2003 Iraq war, French resistance to sanctions or military action against Baghdad grew. According to The Sunday Times of London, French officials regularly "kept Saddam abreast of every development in American planning and may have helped him to prepare for war."

Chirac's relationship with the Iraqi dictator was not an exception but part of a pattern of embracing Middle Eastern rulers hostile to international norms of behavior and in conflict with Western democracies. Soon after assuming the presidency, Chirac sought rapprochement with Arafat. On March 13, 1996, for example, Chirac told Arafat, "When you have a problem, call Doctor Chirac." Arafat inculcated the message. Later that year during a joint Ramallah press conference with Chirac, Arafat declared, "We need Doctor Chirac to save the peace process." In a partly handwritten October 28, 2004, note to the ill Arafat, Chirac said, "I wish that you could resume as soon as possible your work at the service of the Palestinian people ... [France] will always stand next to you." Le Figaro commented that Paris had become the capital of Palestine for the 13 days of Arafat's deathwatch. Upon Arafat's death, the stoic Chirac had tears in his eyes as he eulogized him as "a man of courage and conviction." The embrace of Arafat through his final days got Chirac what he wanted: to be the center of attention of the world and bolster French influence in the Arab world.

While the French bond with Syria has long been strong, Chirac worked to bolster relations even further. Quoting De Gaulle, Chirac described Franco-Syrian ties as an "indestructible friendship." He was the only Western head of state to attend Hafez al-Assad's funeral in 2000. Bashar al-Assad's first official trip outside the Middle East was to Paris in June 2001 although Chirac had cultivated his relationship with the young Assad, receiving him at Elysée Palace in November 1999 prior to his accession to power.

The board of the L'Association d'Amitié France-Syrie (France-Syria Friendship Association) boasts among its members former Prime Minister Raymond Barre, former secretary of state Claude Cheysson, and 2007 presidential hopeful Nicolas Sarkozy.

So why did Paris join with Washington on September 2, 2004, to co-sponsor U.N. Security Council Resolution 1559, which demanded the withdrawal of Syrian troops occupying Lebanon and the disarmament of militias? The left-of-center daily Libération suggested the temporary unity was because the murder of al-Hariri forced Chirac temporarily to choose between Arab friends. Hariri described Chirac as "my best pal" shortly before his death.

Chirac may have several reasons for extending French embrace beyond mere sympathy with the Arab world to uncritical support of rogues regardless of their rejectionism or support for terror. Part of his embrace of Saddam Hussein, Yasir Arafat, Bashar al-Assad, and Hassan Nasrallah may be due to a desire to undercut U.S. objectives in the Middle East and thereby bolster French prestige at U.S. expense. His personal antipathy toward Israel and desire to please his Muslim constituency may also contribute.

The deaths of Hafez al-Assad, Arafat, and Hariri, as well as the ouster of Saddam Hussein suggest that the political benefits of the Chirac doctrine may be fleeting. Developing relationships takes time. The new Iraqi government resents the French embrace of Saddam Hussein. If other Middle Eastern dictatorships succumb to the tentative wave of democratization, there is no guarantee they will embrace Paris or honor commercial accords made under dictatorship. But growing Islamist pressure inside France may nevertheless push Chirac and his successors to pursue an even more pro-Arab policy. The legacy of the Chirac doctrine, though, may not be the French grandeur, which Chirac and his allies seek, but rather a reputation for cynicism, hostility to democracy and reform, and association with the worst excesses of Middle Eastern society.

Olivier Guitta is a freelance writer specializing in the Middle East and Europe. A longer version of this article can be found in the Fall issue of the Middle East Quarterly.


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