Accessibility links

France/Czech: Chirac Seeks to Repair Franco-Czech Relations

  • Joel Blocker

Prague, April 4, 1997 (RFE/RL) - In his official visit to the Czech Republic, which ended yesterday afternoon, French President Jacques Chirac clearly had one major objective in mind: to improve the long-time parlous state of Franco-Czech relations. Our correspondent's assessment of his trip gives Chirac a nine --on a scale of 10-- for effort, but only a meager three for achievement. Here is his analysis:

During his 24 hours in Prague, Chirac failed to do much more than paper over the basic differences between the French and the Czech governments in foreign-policy attitudes and outlooks. Those differences have more to do with post-Cold War happenings than with the historic events of 1938 (Munich accord), 1948 (Czech Communist coup d'etat) and 1968 (Soviet invasion) that Chirac twice publicly admitted had opened wide gaps between the two nations. For all the credit he deserves for his candor about previous problems, Chirac's admissions served to conceal the core reasons for today's Franco-Czech coolness.

The coolness was created, first and foremost, by the conservative Chirac's late predecessor, Socialist Francois Mitterrand. In 1991, Mitterrand began a running political --but not personal-- quarrel with President Vaclav Havel. The dispute became public when, during a visit to Prague the same year, Mitterrand told reporters it would take what he described as "decades and decades" for Central and East European former Communist nations to qualify for entry into the European Community, the predecessor of the European Union. The quarrel continued through the end of Mitterand's presidency in 1995 --despite more visits to each other's capital by Mitterrand and Havel.

As a result of the bad publicity, Mitterrand lost the good odor he had earned in Prague --and elsewhere in Central Europe-- after having invited Havel, and several other Czech anti-Communist dissidents, to breakfast with him at the French Embassy in late 1988. That was 10 months before the Velvet Revolution, and Havel famously came to breakfast with his usual bag containing a toothbrush, in case he was detained by Czech police after leaving the embassy. He was not, but the event helped create Havel's excellent reputation among the French, which he has never lost. In fact, his reputation was probably enhanced during Chirac's visit when, during a dinner toast, Havel said the breakfast with Mitterrand had given Charter 77 a push forward and its members the strength they needed to keep fighting.

More important, Mitterrand's skeptical attitude about integrating Central and East European nations into the West was not only an echo of an aging politician's deep cynicism about the possibility of changing classic European divisions. It also reflected long-held views about those divisions by high French Foreign Ministry officials. Czechoslovakia and later the Czech Republic was seen by them, and manifestly by Mitterrand as well, as being in "the American camp." As such, Prague was considered not nearly as friendly to French interests and French ideas of European independence than Bucharest and Warsaw. What's more, the Romanians and Poles also were --and remain-- far more francophone than the Czechs.

Such considerations continue to count for a great deal for those who work at the Quai d'Orsay in Paris as implementers, and sometimes constructors, of French foreign policy. An inquiring reporter who spoke with some of them just before Chirac's arrival in Prague was told that the Czech Government was more interested in the EU's single market than in its continued integration. That may be true of Prime Minister Vaclav Klaus, but certainly doesn't reflect Havel's stated views. The reporter was also told by high officials at the Quai that Prague was more interested in U.S. protection than in France's vision of the Union as the European pillar of NATO or, as Chirac put it in Prague, "Europe's defense identity."

With all those old ideas in his baggage, Chirac was doomed to failure in Prague. He did manage to renew what both sides agree is a warm personal relation with Havel. But nothing Chirac said in Prague could quite erase the impression among informed Czechs that France's new president was a victim of the Quai's, and his own, old thinking.

True, Chirac spoke quite eloquently to a joint session of Parliament about his vision of a united, whole Europe of East and West --"a great-power Europe (of 27 states that would) be one of the big economic, political and cultural poles of tomorrow's world." Also true, he reiterated on every possible occasion a pledge that the Czech Republic would be admitted to the EU by the year 2000, and integrated into NATO a year earlier.

But, our correspondent concludes, it was all to no avail. Many Czechs, official or otherwise, have become as cynical about French motives in the past seven years as the Quai has been of Czech motives for decades. That's why Franco-Czech relations still have a long way to go before they become warm, no less close.