Prague, 7 April 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Hundreds of French tricolors today flew alongside the Bosnian and Muslim-Croat Federation flags on lampposts in the center of Bosnia's capital Sarajevo. They were there to welcome President Jacques Chirac, the first French head of state to make an official visit to the country since its 1992 secession from Yugoslavia led to three-and-a-half years of war, an estimated 200,000 killed and an extended Serb siege of Sarajevo.
Conservative Chirac's predecessor as president, Socialist Francois Mitterrand, made an unannounced visit of several hours to Sarajevo in June 1992 to try to re-open the city's besieged airport to deliveries of humanitarian aid. Despite the extensive international publicity given his trip, Mitterrand failed to achieve his aim.
Chirac's 24-hour visit began last evening, exactly six years after the start of the Sarajevo siege. French officials say that the president's visit has two main purposes: to encourage the peace and reconciliation process in Bosnia-Herzegovina, and to boost the morale of French soldiers currently serving, many of them in Herzegovina, as part of the NATO-led, 34,000-strong Stabilization Force (SFOR).
Chirac's first act last night was to pay tribute to the 72 French soldiers who died on United Nations peacekeeping duty -- more than in any other single national contingent -- during the 1992 to 1995 war in Bosnia. Less than an hour after his arrival, Chirac unveiled a memorial plaque at the French embassy that honored the troops who, in the plaque's words, "died for France and for Bosnia-Herzegovina." He also saluted the extensive work of French humanitarian groups, 18 representatives of which accompanied him to Bosnia along with his foreign and defense ministers.
Later today, Chirac is scheduled to fly to Mostar, a Herzegovina city still bitterly divided between Moslems and Croats. While there, he will inspect some of the 3,500 French troops now under SFOR's command.
In Sarajevo this morning, Chirac met first individually, then all together, with the three members of Bosnia's collective presidency --Alija Izetbegovic, who chairs the presidency, and Serb and Croat members Momcilo Krajisnik and Kresimir Zubak.
According to French officials (unnamed), Chirac told the leaders that each of them must play his part in fulfilling the Bosnian peace accords and, especially, in disarming their cohorts. Chirac said that "everybody must respect (the accords' weapons ceilings), then we must lower them further."
Izetbegovic later told reporters that Chirac firmly supported Bosnia's application to join the Strasbourg-based Council of Europe, a forum for democracy and human rights that already has 16 members from Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union. The Bosnian president also said that he had asked for France's aid in rapidly establishing diplomatic relations between Bosnia and the rump Yugoslavia.
A French embassy spokesman said Chirac would also meet with Biljana Plavsic, president of the Serb entity Republika Srpska, whose support Western leaders consider critical to the Bosnian peace process. Two months ago, Chirac received Plavsic at his Elysee Palace offices with full state honors, which prompted a protest from Izetbegovic, a Muslim.
But Plavsic will not bring with her to Sarajevo some 50 Serb students from the university in Banja Luka, Bosnia's second largest city, who had been invited to a talk Chirac gave early this afternoon to young people in the city's national theater. The university wrote to the French embassy that, "due to security reasons," the students would not be able to attend the event which was supposed to bring together young Muslims, Serbs and Croats from all parts of Bosnia. To those who did attend the meeting, Chirac called for national reconciliation, saying France believes in what he called "a united, peaceful and multicultural Bosnia.
Many Bosnians hold strongly negative views of the French government, whose traditional pro-Serb policy they believe was a major reason why the West did not intervene to prevent the war in their country or to end it earlier than 1995. So widespread are such feelings that Izetbegovic broadcast an unusual message on Bosnian television last night. The Bosnian president stressed that Chirac had backed military intervention and sought to make clear Chirac's differences with Mitterrand, an unpopular figure in Sarajevo.
Chirac, who took office in May 1995, was far more willing than his predecessor to use NATO firepower against Serb forces besieging Sarajevo. He was also clearly the most important driving force behind the creation of a UN Rapid Reaction Force to protect Muslim safe areas from Serb attacks. But he has been criticized for allegedly vetoing the use of NATO warplanes to protect the Muslim enclave in Srebrenica, the scene in July 1995 of Europe's most murderous single atrocity since World War II. Even so, in December of that year, Chirac hosted the signing in Paris of the U.S.-brokered Dayton peace accords that ended the Bosnian war.
Mitterrand donned a flak jacket in front of the international press when he paid his very brief visit to Sarajevo in 1992. But two months later he told UN and European Union representatives seeking to end the Bosnian conflict that he was opposed to the use of air-strikes against Serb artillery positions high in the hills above Sarajevo. "You will never get me to go to war against the Serbs," Mitterrand told EU envoy Lord Owen, according to Owen's published account.
Yesterday, the independent Sarajevo newspaper Oslobodenje explained the differences between the two French presidents this way: "Mitterrand reduced the problem in Bosnia to a humanitarian issue," the paper wrote. It said that Chirac, who approved the use of force, "marked a radical turning point in French policy."