Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Return of France!

First Syria and now Iran, French President Jacques Chirac is acting pretty tough in what seems like a French return to the international policy-making scene. The lessons that have been learned from the US-led invasion of Iraq seem to be counterintuitive somehow. Rather than championing the cause of non-interventionism and real politick, Chirac’s future policies towards the region promise to be far more interventionist than they have ever been.

Why is this so? Is Chirac becoming another Blair and France another Great Britain? That is, is Chirac leading France into becoming just another European satellite for the US? Or is Chirac simply losing his cool in his old age?

Or, is there something else at work here?

While I am not an expert on French affairs by any means, but, and as a casual observer of developments over the last couple of years, let’s just say that I am more in favor of the latter alternative. Indeed, cool calculations regarding what constitutes France’s interest in the region, rather than some alleged spate of rashness and subservience, seem to be the driving force behind Chirac’s recent assertiveness vis-à-vis Iran, Lebanon and Syria.

France has too many interests in the region to leave it to the Americans to do with it as they will. By not joining in the US-led alliance to topple e Saddam Hussein, the French ended up losing many lucrative oil and natural gas contracts, and all their previous agreements with the Saddam regime came to naught. All the suave realist politics of so many years produced nada.

To make things worse, and in his efforts to appease the Americans, Bashar reportedly ignored the French President’s polite plea for an exploration contract to be granted to a French company, and gave the contract to a US company instead, believing this will be a nice bribe to the Administration.

Whatever the truth in this regard may be, ever since his rise to power, with French support and endorsement as we all know, Bashar’s performance turned up to be consistently disappointing, and on all fronts. This was especially felt with regard to Syria’s relations with Lebanon, and to Bashar’s phantom economic reforms and his inability to commit within a reasonable timeframe to signing the Association Agreement with Europe.

The Lahoud extension fiasco, the assassination of Hariri, the rise of Ahmadinejad in Iran and the current nuclear stand-off with her seems to have increased the stakes. France cannot remain on the sidelines while things like these unfold.

So, Chirac’s recent aggressiveness comes as a reflection of an actual strategic decision on part of the French President and his advisors, and does signal the return of France to the international arena. This is not a completely surprising development really, for France has always been aggressive whenever its interests were at stake. Remember France’s intervention in the Côte d’Ivoire in 2003?