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David Miller: Why the French Must Tread Carefully

David Miller Online

Why the French Must Tread Carefully

I have never been a great admirer of the French and the manner in which they conduct themselves on the world stage. I find it amazing that for a nation that has suffered more military defeats than victories and several painful withdrawals from empire, they still insist on trying to prove that they are a great international power and the one that other countries must listen to. The nuclear testing programme in the South Pacific was testament to this ideal and the crisis over Iraq has presented the French government with another prime opportunity to try and promote themselves not only as the power in Europe but also in Africa and elsewhere around the world.

As a one of the European Union’s founding countries, France has always clamed that its relationship with Germany is the axis of Europe. EU history is filled with incidents of the French yielding their stick within the community, for example, vetoing British membership in the 1960’s, and playing the key role in the creation of a European defence force. Lately, the French, along with Germany, have been able to delay a EU decision on Turkish membership and they have thwarted US attempts to get Nato backing for a possible offensive against Saddam Hussein.

However times are changing. France was able to get away with this while the membership of the EU was limited to the western countries but as the EU expands, French influence is beginning to erode. This became apparent at the recent EU summit where Mr. Chirac lambasted the eastern European governments for supporting the United States over Iraq calling their behaviour, "childish, reckless and dangerous". His government have issued warnings that the aspiring members have damaged their chances of joining the EU and it is possible that France may block the treaty that paves the way for these states to join. The French are concerned that these states are dependent on US aid and therefore will follow any policy that Washington lays down. If so, then they could become a ‘Trojan horse’, for the US to infiltrate Europe and their combined numbers when turned into votes at Brussels will overcome any French stance.
The problem Mr. Chirac faces that if push comes to shove then the US can inflict greater damage to the French economy and status around the world than vice versa. Should Washington decide to impose sanctions and tariffs on French trade then the costs to the French economy will be severe indeed. However given France’s global ambitions then this should be the least of their worries. The real problem for France is what happens when other countries, such as the US and Britain, simply stop listening to what they have to say. What happens if the coalition partners act unilaterally and ignore the French protests or veto? What happens if the French are merely pushed aside? The countries of Europe and the world at large still look to the US for leadership and economic support. The power of the dollar is still a major incentive for countries to at least remain silent over any US plans for war rather than the lure of the Euro.

Maybe this is why Mr. Chirac is taking a renewed interest in African affairs and seeking to establish France as the power broker across that continent? Last month he invited African leaders to an economic conference in Paris, including Zimbabwe dictator Robert Mugabe and he recently committed French troops to Liberia to help restore order there. He is currently on an official visit to Algeria aimed at fostering a good relationship with the former colony and strong economic ties. It is also seen as a bid to deflect any US and British interest in lucrative minerals there and to establish France as the regional powerbroker.

In promoting his aggressive agenda in Europe and overseas, Mr. Chirac is walking a very fine line. While this policy may bring him strong support from his domestic electorate it is losing friends and respect abroad. The French and their leader may not care about such cost or believe they can overcome it, however the power and influence of the US means that they will flounder sooner or later. The US can marginalize France quickly and easily and certainly do so if pushed to far. Are the French prepared to accept this price or will we witness another last minute about face?


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