After his first six months as president of France, Jacques Chirac, like the proverbial prophet, is more honored abroad than at home. The discrepancy is sharpest with the United States, where the press has been quick to appreciate Chirac's "bulldozer" style, particularly in contrast with the wavering image of President Bill Clinton. Where Clinton has appeared undecided, if not disinterested, in foreign policy, Chirac has come across as forceful, experienced, and knowledgeable. The comparison has been a near-reversal of that purveyed by the American media 14 years ago, when François Mitterrand was first elected president of France. Dismay and anxiety greeted the coming to power of Mitterrand's socialist-communist coalition, while across the Atlantic an air of confidence surrounded the new Reagan conservative revolution with its "America is back" assertiveness.

Today the French public is far less enthusiastic about the performance of its new leader and his government. Judging from the rapid downward trend of opinion polls, Chirac has been granted the shortest honeymoon in the history of France's Fifth Republic. In part such vicissitudes reflect the difficulty of governance afflicting most of the Western democratic world in the absence of a clear external threat and in the presence of internal economic and social problems. But for a fuller explanation, one must look also to the self-willed character of Chirac and the contradictory actions of his government, headed by Prime Minister Alain Juppé.

In socioeconomic terms France perfectly illustrates the contemporary challenges of stimulating adequate economic growth while keeping inflation low, of reducing public budgets while preserving social benefits, and of satisfying a still-rigid corporatist society while fitting itself to the constraints of integration, including a common currency, envisioned in a Maastricht Europe. The greatest challenge for Chirac may lie in the contradictory nature of these goals or in the incompatibility of the means to those ends.

In foreign and security policy the issues are similar in character. Chirac's modernized Gaullist formula for independent French action to meet the exigencies of the post--Cold War world may be irreconcilable with the constraints and demands of the European unification process. The goal of independence may not mesh with the retention of influence. An immediate, concrete example is the apparent contradiction between France's European and world ambitions and its resumption of nuclear testing.

FOREIGN POLICY ACTIVISM

Four foreign policy themes have dominated the initial months of Chirac's presidency: the war in Bosnia, nuclear testing, European relations, and the conflict in Algeria and its repercussions in France. Under Mitterrand, France had largely become a status quo power beyond the rhetorical call for change in the south. Chirac wants to rock the boat of the established order and to break away from his predecessor by temperament and calculus. It is on policy toward Bosnia that Chirac has had a decisive and positive influence. Refusing to accept the humiliation of the U.N. hostage crisis, rejecting the logic of humanitarian aid in which he saw an alibi for doing nothing, Chirac emphasized the use of military action as an essential instrument of diplomacy. Refusing to maintain a neutral stance, he assigned the major responsibility for aggression to the Bosnian Serbs, changed the mandate of the U.N. Protection Force, and pushed for the creation of a rapid reaction force whose military means and latitude of action would square with its responsibilities. For Chirac to acquiesce in humiliation was out of the question. He was convincing in threatening to withdraw France's contingent if the conditions of its presence were not changed.

Above all, Chirac influenced America's foreign policy in Bosnia. He convinced the American administration, at a turning point, that it would be more costly for the United States to extricate the French and British contingents from Bosnia than to escalate pressure via diplomatic and military means. Whatever happens next--and the future is far from clear--French pressure, along with other factors such as the Croatian-Bosnian military victories in Krajina and western Bosnia, have contributed to modifying the balance of forces and of political will in the former Yugoslavia. While the full lessons of the war are yet to be known, it is clear that without the decisive engagement of the United States nothing moves seriously. It is also clear that for the United States to forcefully engage, a strong prod is needed from one of its key allies, in this case Chirac's France.

The assertiveness of Chirac in Bosnia was supported by a majority of the French, who resented the mixture of passivity and cynicism in the previous administration. The same cannot be said of Chirac's decision to resume nuclear testing, which also departed from Mitterrand's policy. If President Chirac expected the angry and negative reactions emanating from countries of the South Pacific, he was surprised by the hostility stemming not only from Western Europe but above all from France. Sixty percent of the public, according to all polls, disapproved of his decision. It is too early to say whether the positive dividends from Chirac's stance on Bosnia were lost as a result of his nuclear decision.

Chirac resumed nuclear testing not to distinguish himself from his predecessor but in the belief that it was necessary if France is to maintain the security, credibility, and reliability of its nuclear arsenal. The aim of the tests is to validate France's ability to produce so-called "robust" weapons that retain their capability over a long period and to perfect simulation techniques that will make future testing unnecessary. Such an argument could not convince the world. People surveyed in other countries were unimpressed by what they perceived as the arrogant unilateralism of France and its urge to be different at all costs. The French authorities also had to act under the pressure of time before the opening of the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty negotiations in May 1996. As a result they announced the tests shortly before the world observed the 50th anniversary of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

Even if the calendar had been less unfortunate and even if the French government had taken more precautions to inform its partners and allies first, outside reactions were bound to be negative. What the French authorities failed to perceive was the impact of the end of the Cold War on international and even French public attitudes. Without the Cold War, nuclear weapons seem more dangerous than any threat they could stay. The daily spectacle of the war in the former Yugoslavia, for example, is not seen as a consequence of the absence of nuclear deterrence between the fighting parties. It is, in contrast, perceived as proof that, given the passionate irrationality of mankind, it is a good thing the adversaries are not in possession of nuclear weapons.

Chirac's proposal to move toward the Europeanization of the French nuclear deterrent, whatever its validity in political terms for Europe, missed an essential point. Europeans, and Germans in particular, do not want to be under the protection of the French bomb or any bomb. They want to be protected from the bomb. If the nuclear crisis has, in the short run, reinforced the diplomatic and political links between Bonn and Paris, thanks to Chancellor Helmut Kohl's remarkable understanding of the French position, the same cannot be said of relations between the two societies. German public opinion has seen in the French decision a confirmation of France's arrogance. French elites have probably perceived the German public's attitude as further proof of German irresponsibility.

The decision to resume nuclear testing may be leading to the temporary paralysis of Chirac's European diplomacy at a time when he is particularly keen to maximize influence over the critical debate on the future of Europe. Like Mitterrand, Chirac is convinced that only a "Europe" can demultiply the French ambition to play a role in the world. Chirac is searching for a synthesis between the German and British views of Europe, between the integrationism of the former and the insistence on the sovereignty of national governments of the latter. The need for such a compromise is of course partly the result of domestic politics and the desire to reconcile France's pro- and anti-Maastricht camps.

In an indirect way the Algerian drama and its effects on French daily life have also undercut the European policy of France by de facto suspending the Schengen agreement on open passage across European borders. French citizens do not trust Belgian, Dutch, or Italian police to protect their security. The spread of Islamic terrorism is in fact leading to a long-term renationalization of European policies, which makes the objectives of Maastricht Europe appear more distant and even abstract every day.

France has failed twice in Algeria--first in influencing the adversaries to move toward a peaceful negotiated solution and second in preventing Algerian terrorists from exploding bombs in France. Under its previous government France gave the impression of oscillating between two policies toward Algeria. The first, championed by Interior Minister Charles Pasqua, consisted of backing the Algerian military regime without any real reservations. The second, advocated by then--Foreign Minister Juppé, favored a dialogue between the regime and the moderate Islamic forces. Now prime minister, Juppé continues to pursue this policy. But for Algerian fundamentalists, France is still backing the Algerian regime by, directly or indirectly, supporting the Algerian economy through the European Union.

To punish France or deter it from continuing its support for Algeria, the weapon of terrorism is a convenient one. In the 1980s the terrorism wave now openly attributed to Iran had already hit France hard. But the terrorists of 1995, precisely because they are not linked to a state and because they are using young Algerians, if not young French citizens of Algerian origin, are affecting France in a deeper way. What is at stake is the fate and acceptability in France of a large minority of more than four million Muslims. Having lost any hope of returning to Algeria, this minority fears being scapegoated and confined in a ghetto of suspicion and xenophobia, which fuels fundamentalist currents that today are only marginal.

In the short run Chirac can benefit from the emotional impact of the terrorist wave. When you fear for your life and your children, you tend to rally--at least at first--around the man who incarnates the authority of the republic. But Chirac knows he will be judged on two essential criteria: his ability to restore economic security (much lower unemployment) and physical security (a halt to terrorism) for the French, the first probably more difficult than the second.

A CRISIS OF POLITICS

The main challenge remains above all political. Chirac is confronted with a crisis of politics that manifests itself in a series of corruption scandals and in denunciations of privileges. French society is threatened by the risk of social fractures, if not despair leading to violence. Chirac must contribute to the restoration of the legitimacy of politics and the reliability of a democratic state such that politicians and civil servants are seen to be and actually are animated by a sense of the public good, rather than their corporatist interests.

Complicating the task is the penchant of the French, not unlike the Americans, to expect conflicting achievements from their president. If Americans want to exercise power in the world without cost, leadership and influence without risk, and military leverage without casualties, the French in their domestic demands are equally contradictory. They are pressing for change, but they also want to be reassured. Once they elected Chirac, as the supposed agent of change, they expected him to protect their respective privileges. France is still a highly corporatist society with trade unions, public servants, and functionnaires clinging to their respective advantages. The clash of personalities and political philosophies that led to the dismissal of the free-market finance minister, Alain Madelin, by the prime minister, Alain Juppé, is a perfect illustration of the French schizophrenia. Madelin's ouster can only constitute a serious disillusionment for all those who voted for Chirac believing he would implement radical Thatcherite change.

TOUGH RECONCILIATION

To cure the cancer of unemployment while restoring the good health of public finances are for the Juppé government two indissociable, if not incompatible, struggles. Unemployment was the single most important issue during the election campaign. Fighting the nation's stubbornly high 12 percent unemployment rate is the government's top priority. Two well-known aspects of the unemployment problem are specific to France. One is the high proportion of unskilled low-wage earners out of a job. The French have reached a consensus that the cost of labor--not only the minimum wage, but also the employers' contributions--is too high for these people. The second specifically French aspect is that about one-third of those without jobs are long-term unemployed, that is, without work for more than one year. Juppé's government has chosen to combat these two problems by reducing employers' social contributions for low-wage earners and by intervening with subsidies that include new job-provision contracts.

French demographics, however, make the government's task more difficult. Every year there is a net inflow into the labor market of about 150,000 people, which corresponds to the difference between the number of people retiring and those just starting their careers. This is a problem France's neighbors such as Germany and Italy do not have because of their lower birth rates.

For bringing down unemployment, the government's main hope lies in economic growth, and its main asset is that the economy is slowly but surely picking up. But if unemployment is on a downward trend, if interest rates are moving in the same direction, and if the franc is rebounding from its last crisis before the May presidential election, uncertainties and doubts remain. The new government's dream of creating a virtuous circle of increased consumption, tax receipts, and social welfare income can be reached only by substantially reducing unemployment.

Despite the favorable factors cited, it is far from certain that a sufficiently dramatic employment turnaround will take place. And it is not yet clear that Chirac and Juppé will directly confront France's major structural problem. A case in point is the decision to raise France's already high value added tax of 18.6 percent to 20.6 percent. If the macroeconomic impact is to cut down consumer spending, then the increase will have backfired. So far the recovery from the recession of 1992-93 has been driven by exports and investors. Consumers have not yet participated in this growth, even though earnings and employment have risen. In spite of the measures taken by the government, French employers still face a disproportionate welfare burden compared to their equivalents elsewhere. Juppé's objective of cutting the public sector deficit to four percent of GDP next year, from the five percent forecast for 1995, implies an austerity budget as a minimum requirement. It also means addressing politically sensitive social security reform, including curbs on health spending and a further tax increase to bridge the growing welfare funding gap, which is predicted to rise from $281 billion in 1994 to $371 billion in 1995. A drastic reduction of the overall budget deficit is a must if France wants to meet the criteria for entering a European monetary union.

In electing Chirac in May the French people expressed a desire for real change because they were convinced that urgent reform was needed to prevent the explosion of a fossilized system. The present mood of skepticism, if not pessimism, prevailing in France after less than six months of Chirac's rule illustrates how difficult his task will be. If Chirac fails to reconcile the French with themselves and their state, if a combination of social unrest and terrorist violence divides the society and fractures the culture, unsavory, undemocratic forces, such as Jean-Marie Le Pen's extreme right National Front, could become a much more serious and destabilizing political threat.

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  • Dominique Moïsi is Deputy Director of the Institut Français des Relations Internationales and Editor in Chief of Politique Étrangère.
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