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Last Updated: Monday, 14 April, 2003, 22:34 GMT 23:34 UK
Tough times ahead for Chirac

By Emma Jane Kirby
BBC correspondent in Paris

French President Jacques Chirac
French papers are reminding Chirac that no-one likes to lose

As the war in Iraq draws to a close with the toppling of Saddam Hussein, where does this now leave France, which voiced the strongest opposition to the war?

"Poor Mr Chirac," said an editorial in the Le Parisien newspaper last week.

"I bet he could scarcely bring himself to watch those TV images of the victorious Americans being welcomed in Baghdad."

"The King of Peace without a crown," sneered the left-wing paper Liberation, "Chirac is now threatened with diplomatic isolation."

The wrong horse?

It is true that the French president now finds himself in a tricky political position.

What will strengthen President Chirac's position - and weaken Bush's position - is if no weapons of mass destruction are found in Iraq after all
Dominique de Moisi
Institute of International Affairs
On the face of it, by championing non-aggression, he backed the wrong horse.

The war in Iraq is not now proving to be the great prolonged struggle that the French Government had predicted, and the majority of Iraqi people clearly do not view the Americans as occupiers and invaders.

Liberation reminded its readers that human nature is such that no one likes to be a loser.

The paper predicted that, since Mr Chirac's policies had not exactly reaped huge dividends, his huge majority support (79% of French people backed the anti-war stance) might soon take a tumble.

Public opinion

And if polls are to be believed, then public opinion on the war has indeed changed.
US Marines tank passes a mural of Saddam Hussein as it rolls into Tikrit
Attention in France has turned to Iraq's alleged weapons of mass destruction

At the weekend, the Journal de Dimanche ran a poll by Ifop-JDD, which indicated that now just 55% of French people still agree that France was right to refuse to become involved in a military campaign against Iraq.

"It just shows you how volatile public opinion is," laughs Dominique de Moisi, the deputy director of the French Institute of International Affairs.

"It's not so much that the French people don't like to be seen as losers, but more that they believe France's position on the war has proved to be irrelevant.

"But what will strengthen President Chirac's position - and weaken Bush's position - is if no weapons of mass destruction are found in Iraq after all."

The smoking gun?

That is a theme that many of the French newspapers are now picking up.

America will not forgive France easily... but a renewed friendship with Britain will be very useful in achieving a reconciliation
French Institute of International Affairs deputy director Dominique de Moisi
After all, asks Le Figaro, was not that the point of going to war in the first place?

Where are the weapons of mass destruction and where are the al-Qaeda terrorist cells we were told about?

"If they are found," warns Dominique de Moisi, "then Chirac is in further trouble, of course."

Mr Chirac already faces problems much closer to home.

Domestic issues

The immediacy and importance of the war in Iraq has enabled him to neglect a number of uncomfortable but pressing domestic issues.

The French economy is looking decidedly unhealthy, with analysts predicting no more than a 0.3% growth for this half year.

There is also a ballooning budget deficit, which is already well over the 3% limit set by the European Growth and Stability Pact and which Brussels will not ignore for much longer.

Unemployment is rising fast, and soon Mr Chirac's government will have to tackle the ugly but necessary issue of pension reform, which has already caused mass strikes across the country.

Sidelined?

If the United Nations does not get to play the "central role" which France is demanding for a new administration in Baghdad, then the French Government - which has always used the Security Council to sound its diplomatic might - will lose its voice altogether in Iraq.

UK Prime Minister Tony Blair [left] with Mr Chirac
Britain may be Chirac's last hope

And the US is unlikely to give such an outspoken critic of the war a share of any lucrative reconstruction contracts.

Diplomatically and economically, France will be cut out of the region and, with Mr Chirac sidelined from the international stage, he will be forced to consider more introspective policies which will be anything but glorious.

According to Mr de Moisi, the hope lies with Britain.

"America will not forgive France easily," he says.

"But a renewed friendship with Britain will be very useful in achieving a reconciliation.

"French business leaders are already extremely nervous about poor transatlantic relations because, of course, it could cost them dearly... but at least Mr Blair still can exert some influence over Washington."

And so for Paris, the struggle to exert French influence is about to begin all over again.

But this time, France knows it would do well to be less outspoken, and to engage in what Mr Moisi calls "a quiet diplomacy".


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