Jacques Chirac — Arab world’s fast friend in Europe
In the death of Jacques Chirac, the two-time President of France, the Arab world has lost a dear friend. Even before he took charge of France, Chirac had long been in love with the region and had developed strong and long-lasting relationships with all the rulers in the region — from Kings Fahd and Abdullah of Saudi Arabia to President Hosni Mobarak, Sheikh Zayed of the UAE and Lebanon’s former Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.
One of the stellar moments for which Chirac would be remembered took place in Old Jerusalem on Oct. 22, 1996 when the French President, on a visit, publicly lashed out at the Israeli security chief asking him whether he should go back to his plane. This enraged statement spoke volumes about Chirac and his beliefs regarding the Middle East and notably the Palestinian cause, of which he remained a strong supporter all through his public life, before, during and even after his presidency.
Earlier the same year, during a speech in Cairo in April, Chirac had reintroduced vigor to the French policy to the Arab world in general, but Palestine in particular. There were three key reasons behind Chirac’s focus on the Middle East that became accentuated early in his first term. One of the factors was a political vacuum in the Western leadership due to presidential elections in the US. Another was that Chirac was trying to get France to regain some of its old glory and its historic ties with the region through his renewed interest in the Arab world and his numerous visits to the region. No wonder, Yasser Arafat referred to him as “Doctor Chirac” and the closest friend that he had in Europe, or indeed the entire Western world.
One of the landmark policies and decisions that would mark Chirac’s second term and indeed French policy in the Middle East was his rejection of the US-led invasion of Iraq in the second Gulf War against Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Unlike his British counterpart, Prime Minister Tony Blair, who merrily joined the misplaced campaign against “weapons of mass destruction” that Saddam was supposed to have possessed, Chirac firmly led the opposition to an intervention in Iraq. It proved immensely popular in France and indeed the rest of Europe, in sharp contrast with Blair, whose legacy was dragged in mud for taking Britain into the war.
Even today, writers in the European press, marking his obituary, refer to him as the “President who said no to war in Iraq.”
The former French President, who died on Thursday in Paris, was one of the most reliable friends for the entire Arab world.
Ranvir S. Nayar
Though Chirac justified his decision to stay away from the war in an address to the nation, saying that France remained certain that the disarmament of Iraq could be attained by peaceful methods and that France opposed the war on the principles of sovereignty and independence, some observers did recollect a famous photograph of Saddam and Chirac, both dressed in white jackets, at the French nuclear reactor of Cadarache.
The photograph, from 1974, showed the extent of French collaboration with Iraq in the development of its nuclear technology.
Chirac also played a key role in modulating the policies of the EU towards the Middle East and especially its consistent support to the Palestinian cause and the two-state solution. Besides Iraq, Chirac also played an important role in the EU policy toward Iran, one of cautious engagement with the regime, in sharp contrast with the policy of the current US President Donald Trump.
On March 5, 2006, just before he hung up his presidential boots, Chirac became the first leader of the western world to address the Majlis in Saudi Arabia, during his state visit to the country.
He used the occasion to salute the slew of political reforms being introduced by his friend, King Abdullah, notably the broader suffrage in municipal elections as well as several economic reforms that the regime had begun. Chirac had also always stood by Saudi Arabia and had encouraged the country to keep on playing its role as a leader of the Arab world and especially to lead the battle against the growing menace of terrorism.
Today, in his death, the Arab world has lost a close and reliable friend, notably at a time when the situation in the Middle East remains particularly volatile and the rest of the world, especially the West, remains immersed in its domestic challenges. Can the incumbent French President Macron step into the shoes of this giant and rebuild the same level of engagement with the region?
• Ranvir S. Nayar is the editor of Media India Group, a global platform based in Europe and India that encompasses publishing, communication and consultation services.