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France: Chirac's Talks With Bush Offer Political Boost

French President Jacques Chirac met with George W. Bush in the White House on 18 September, the first foreign leader to do so since last week's terrorist attacks in New York and Washington. RFE/RL's Paris correspondent Joel Blocker fills in the French background to the meeting.

Paris, 19 September 2001 (RFE/RL) -- Jacques Chirac spent two hours with George W. Bush at a working dinner on 18 September at the White House. Later, talking to reporters, he reaffirmed his pledge -- first made in Paris two days after the terrorist attacks -- of "total" French solidarity with the United States:

"I wanted to express to him [President Bush] and to them [the American people], our determination, which is boundless, to combat, with all necessary means, this new type of absolute evil that is terrorism. I wanted also to express France's availability."

But as he did last week, Chirac significantly qualified his support for any eventual U.S. military action. He said it was "conceivable" that France would be at Washington's side in a future military operation -- but only to the degree that it is "consulted beforehand on the objectives and modalities of the action."

Chirac also said that the meeting had allowed him to better understand Bush's intentions in regard to a retaliatory action, but he declined to provide any details. He said only that the U.S. president has what he called a "perfectly clear view of the situation" and a strong determination to conduct a coordinated action in the international struggle against terrorism.

In France, according to the latest opinion polls, almost three out of four people (73 percent) say they approve of a U.S. retaliatory strike, and only slightly less (68 percent) favor a French military role in such an action. Recent polls also show a sharp upturn (6 percent) in the conservative president's popularity, while Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin has suffered a slight decline (1 percent).

Analysts say the new popularity ratings could be a significant index of the effect of the new international turbulence on the French political scene. They note that the French president, as commander-in-chief of the nation's armed forces, is now in the limelight, while Jospin has been relegated to the role of a number-two man.

The two men will probably face each other in a presidential run-off election on 12 May. The role of so-called "third-man" candidates -- centrist or left and right splinter candidates -- in the election's first round two weeks earlier is seen as less important, with a simple "one-on-one battle" now considered more likely.

In that struggle, the analysts say, Chirac for the moment has the upper hand. Writing in the conservative daily "Figaro," Judith Waintraub said that the 1991 Gulf War "showed almost to the point of caricature how a prime minister could disappear -- from the media and from the political scene -- during a world crisis." Then-president Francois Mitterrand, she recalled, had in any case wanted to get rid of his Socialist prime minister, Michel Rocard, and the war's end made it easy for him to do so.

Analysts conclude that the "cohabitation" of a conservative president and a Socialist premier -- backed by a leftist majority in parliament -- will keep Jospin from suffering the same fate. But Jospin, who has been fond of repeating "I act, the president talks," will now have to get used to playing a secondary role in major international affairs.

Almost as if he were defying any diminishing stature, the prime minister yesterday went out of his way to emphasize that the parliament would have to approve of any French participation in a U.S. retaliatory strike. That may be so, analysts allow, but they say it's hardly likely that even a leftist-controlled parliament would vote against the will of three-quarters of the French public.

"Liberation," a left-of-center daily, yesterday said that Chirac's current image as the nation's leader in a time of crisis "would be hard to improve on, even in his dreams." That image was enhanced yesterday in Washington and again today in Chirac's visit to New York. It will be further burnished when the French leader reports on his talks with Bush to his peers at the European Union summit in Brussels on 21 September.