The announcement by President Chirac that he will not seek a third term sent us to that famous first paragraph of DeGaulle's memoirs, the paragraph that begins with the line about how all his life he has thought of France in a certain way. DeGaulle wrote that instinctively he had the feeling that Providence had created France either for "complete success or for exemplary misfortunes." If in spite of this, DeGaulle wrote, "mediocrity shows in her acts and deeds, it strikes me as an absurd anomaly, to be imputed to the faults of Frenchmen, not to the genius of the land." It would be a charitable way to describe Mr. Chirac, who, though heir to the Gaullist tradition, blundered badly and left nearly all Americans disappointed.
This was not only in respect of the Battle of Iraq, but in many other things. DeGaulle himself, no doubt bruised by America over Suez in 1956, had long since turned France against Israel. Those who followed the eventual transition to Mr. Chirac's presidency after the years of Mitterrand's socialism learned quickly, if sadly, that whatever Mr. Chirac represented it would not be a supply-side, Reagan-and-Thatcherite vision for economic growth in the heart of Europe. By our lights, his presidency was doomed, shut off from the future, by the blunders made in respect of economic policy during that period. The blunders cost France the confidence to take any of the steps that needed to be taken internationally in the geopolitical sphere.
Mr. Chirac leaves the center right in disarray, though the majority of the French polity is somewhere between the center right and the far right. None of the three leading candidates — Nicolas Sarkozy, Segolene Royal, and Francois Bayrou — will preserve Mr. Chirac's legacy. In respect of relations with both America and Israel, our David Twersky, who was in France last week, reckons there is likely to be an improvement no matter which of the three contenders wins. Mr. Sarkozy, the challenger from within the Gaullist party, is ahead in the polls, if only marginally, despite staking a relatively pro-American and pro-Israel line.
One of the things that people tend to forget is that the reactor that Prime Minister Begin sent Israeli warplanes to bomb in Baghdad in 1981 had been sold to Saddam Hussein by Mr. Chirac. The reactor, called Osirak, was jokingly referred to in Israel as Ochirac. Yet there is a lot involved in the pending elections beyond these important, if narrow, issues. We are not great fans of the European Union. France rejected the European Union constitution, sealing Mr. Chirac's downward spiral. Yet we've lived long enough to know that history can play funny tricks; America and France are now on the same page in such disparate fights as Lebanon and Afghanistan and may yet be together in Darfur.
One of the salient issues in the upcoming election in France is the failure of the country to assimilate its large and rapidly growing Muslim population. The inability of Mr. Chirac to endorse a pro-growth economic policy in France no doubt has made this a crisis. It would be wrong to suggest that this crisis is only an economic one; the Islamist war is now seething on French soil. But we have no doubt that the way forward for France has much to do with the economic principles that have been proven in America in the Age of Reagan. It was tragic for Mr. Chirac that he failed to see this, but these ideas of liberty are — as President Bush might point out — universal and await whoever in France will have the courage to seize them.