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Last Updated: Monday, 24 February, 2003, 12:36 GMT
Chirac's delusions of grandeur?

By William Horsley
BBC European affairs correspondent

France's President Jacques Chirac has been throwing his weight around in the world.

His performance is dazzling the French, but has brought a serious backlash.

Tony Blair and Jacques Chirac holding a summit in early February
Chirac: supposedly called Blair "badly brought up"
Mr Chirac has thrust himself to the centre of the Iraq crisis. His behaviour is being compared to that of the late President Charles de Gaulle, who once boycotted European meetings to prove that nothing could be done without France.

Mr Chirac has gone further, accusing those who disagree with him of "rudeness".

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair (last October), Turkish leader Abdullah Gul (last December) and 13 heads of government from eastern Europe (last week) are among those to have incurred presidential displeasure.

Could Mr Chirac himself be in part responsible for the breakdown of good manners, which he has accused some of his adversaries of lacking? Clearly, not in Mr Chirac's book.

Jacques Chirac's high-profile interventions make an impressive list.

No entry?

At last week's EU summit in Brussels, he savaged 13 eastern European governments for supporting the United States over Iraq.

He called their behaviour "childish, reckless and dangerous", and warned Romania and Bulgaria they had damaged their chances of joining the EU in 2007.

His ministers have even hinted that France might block the Accession Treaty for 10 new EU members that is due to be signed in April.

Chirac has broken a lot of political furniture, and the bills may come his way soon
Last week, Mr Chirac welcomed Zimbabwe's autocratic leader, Robert Mugabe, to a conference in Paris, after winning an exemption from the EU's sanctions policy.

He offered the 50 African states at the conference economic inducements, and won a joint statement of solidarity with France over Iraq.

That veto

In addition, Mr Chirac has so far thwarted US President George Bush's plans for an early military attack on Iraq.

Mr Chirac is riding high at home, with polls suggesting that more than 80% of the French support his Iraq policy. It is less than one year since he won re-election and was freed from the yoke of "cohabitation" with a socialist prime minister.

His energy is remarkable, but some advisers are warning him of irreparable damage to French long-term interests if he pushes the patience of the US beyond breaking point.

Making more waves, Mr Chirac has revived the joint claim of France and Germany to speak for the whole EU. Last October they stampeded the EU into accepting their deal on farm subsidies - despite protests from UK Prime Minister Tony Blair.

In December they persuaded the EU to postpone a decision on when Turkey could apply to join.

And on 22 January, at a ceremony in Versailles to mark 40 years of Franco-German friendship, President Chirac and Germany's Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder challenged the US, declaring that they stood shoulder to shoulder in opposing a war against Iraq.

No, Nato

France, with Germany and Belgium, has also defied the Americans in Nato, temporarily blocking US plans to get the alliance to help with preparations for military action.

Eventually France stood aside while the 18 members of Nato's integrated military structure approved moves to boost the defence of Turkey.

Mr Chirac so far seems unscathed. He has been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize. And he hopes to come out of the Iraq crisis as a champion of peace, a champion of Europe and a strong French leader.

UK newspaper the Sun, 20 February 2003
A UK newspaper dubbed Chirac a "worm"
But he has broken a lot of political furniture, and the bills may come his way soon.

He has earned the hostility of many leaders in eastern Europe who will soon have a much bigger voice. Some will never forget his insults.

He has offended some current EU leaders, who resent his claim to speak for Europe and his worsening of the rift with the US.

He has sorely angered the US, which is liable to mistrust the French Government for many years to come.

Retribution could come in the form of a US boycott of French goods, sidelining France in any post-war settlement in Iraq, or a re-casting of America's international alliances to downgrade the role of France.

Power play

All these may come, barring a sudden French volte-face over Iraq.

Above all, Mr Chirac's power play for the leadership of the EU has so far failed.

Most European leaders still look to the US in matters of war and peace. Yet Mr Chirac, backed by Mr Schroeder, wants to push on to turn the EU into a "defence union". They have also tried to co-opt Russia into a new European order that would challenge US leadership.

Others in Europe think President Chirac is playing with fire.

Paradoxically, the most obvious casualty of the western divisions over Iraq may be the idea of a common European foreign policy.

Mr Chirac claims to believe in one, but his own actions may have helped to prove that such an aspiration is still a mirage. If he found himself isolated, would he accept the will of the majority?

To answer that would indeed take leadership. And some humility.

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