This article of mine appears in today's The Australian.
Don't it always seem to go
That you don't know what you've got
'Til it's gone.
THE words of Joni Mitchell's Big Yellow Taxi were penned nearly 40 years ago, but they do, I believe, have particular relevance this weekend as the citizens of France prepare to bid adieu to Jacques Chirac, their President for the past 12 years.
The man they call Le Bulldozer can hardly be said to be going out in a blaze of glory. Opinion polls show about 70 per cent of the French public has a negative view of him: in 2005 Chirac was rated the most unpopular president of the Fifth Republic since pollsters began measuring the personal approval ratings of French politicians in 1978.
Foreign commentators seem similarly unimpressed with Chirac's record. "Whenever a corrupt, vulgar, sex-addled politician leaves office it's a cause for celebration," opines Philip Delves Broughton in Britain's Daily Mail. "When that politician happens to be Jacques Chirac, it is truly a moment to hang out the bunting, whistle La Marseillaise and pop a bottle of Kent's finest methode champenoise."
I beg to differ.
Chirac may have got some decisions wrong during his time in office, but on the defining issue of our times - the Iraq war - the "corrupt, vulgar, sex-addled" Bulldozer got it absolutely right. For keeping his country out of a catastrophic conflict and for refusing to give legitimacy to the invasion by supporting a second UN resolution, he deserves far more plaudits than he has yet been accorded.
It's easy to forget the opprobrium Chirac and his country received for having the temerity to oppose the neo-conservative war agenda. The phrase "cheese-eating surrender monkeys", first uttered by a character in The Simpsons and popularised by Jonah Goldberg in National Review, became the favoured term of abuse, while the anti-French hysteria that swept the US led to french fries being renamed freedom fries in three congressional buildings in Washington, DC.
Chirac, likened to a rodent by Christopher Hitchens, was accused of being a pimp for Saddam Hussein, with a 1975 quote - in which he told the then Iraqi vice-president "I welcome you as my personal friend. I assure you of my esteem, my consideration, and my affection" - being constantly dragged up by those who were somewhat less keen to mention former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld's infamous visit to Baghdad in the 1980s.
When those weapons of mass destruction turned up, Chirac would, we were informed, be a laughing stock. "France (and Germany) risk being completely disqualified as serious members of the international community," predicted Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum.
Yet four years on, it's the US and Britain - and not France and Germany - that have seen their international credibility torn to shreds. France, because of its opposition to the Iraq war, is now arguably the most respected Western country not only in the Middle East but throughout the entire world: its increased influence was seen in the key diplomatic role it played in helping to end the Israel-Hezbollah war last year.
Those who warned that France's relations with the US would be permanently damaged on account of Chirac's anti-war stance have also been proved spectacularly wrong. "The revival of French influence in Washington must be particularly galling for Mr Blair after the considerable political damage he has suffered for persisting in his close alliance with the American President," records neo-conservative writer Con Coughlin.
By telling it straight to George W. Bush, Chirac proved himself a better friend to the US than the obsequious Tony Blair. And for his candour Chirac has been rewarded with greater respect in Washington: significantly, there was no "Yo Chirac!" greeting for him at last year's Group of Eight summit.
Chirac's opposition to the Iraq war was not based on any great affection for Saddam, nor knee-jerk anti-Americanism, as his detractors claim, but because in foreign policy terms he is a conservative realist and not a neo-conservative. For conservative realists the whole notion of a pre-emptive strike is anathema. Conservative realists know that wars have unintended consequences and that military action should be the last resort. Conservative realists believe in deterrence and containment: they prefer to let sleeping dogs lie rather than stir up hornets' nests. But it's a mistake to confuse such a position with weakness.
In January last year Chirac said France was prepared to launch a nuclear strike against any country that sponsored a terrorist attack against French interests. When it comes to countering Islamic terror, France's record is second to none: "France is the most stalwart nation in the West, even more so than America, while Britain is the most hapless," is the verdict of US terrorism analyst Daniel Pipes.
The main worry is that under Nicolas Sarkozy, Chirac's probable successor, things could change. Sarkozy criticised Chirac's handling of the Iraq crisis, and even though he has since conceded the French President was right, he nevertheless favours aligning foreign policy more closely to Washington. There's little doubt that Sarkozy has a closer ideological affinity with the neo-conservative world view than his staunchly Gaullist predecessor. And that could mean trouble lies ahead.
It was once said of Neville Chamberlain, Britain's most disastrous prime minister, that he would have made a good lord mayor of Birmingham in a bad year. About Chirac the opposite could be said to be true. He was a mediocre mayor of Paris but, in foreign affairs at least, an uncommonly good president.
The French won't know what they had 'til it's gone.