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Western Press Review: Chirac's Re-Election, Redefining NATO, And The Middle East

Prague, 6 May 2002 (RFE/RL) -- Western press commentary over the weekend and today focuses on the re-election victory of French President Jacques Chirac over his controversial far-right challenger, Jean-Marie Le Pen. Le Pen's surprise triumph in the first-round voting on 28 April over Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin has led many pundits to question the significance of the renewed popularity of rightist candidates throughout Europe. Other commentary continues to assess the situation in the Middle East, in light of tomorrow's scheduled meeting between Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and U.S. President George W. Bush in Washington. Other topics addressed today include the International Criminal Court and forging a new role for NATO..


An editorial in "The New York Times" today looks at yesterday's second-round voting in France's presidential elections, in which incumbent President Jacques Chirac gained an overwhelming victory over far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen. Chirac won just over 82 percent of the vote to just under 18 percent for Le Pen. "The New York Times" says far-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen's unexpected success in the first round of France's presidential election brought to light two alarming trends: "the disenchantment of voters with France's mainstream parties and the increased strength of xenophobic politics. The anti-immigrant, antiglobalization backlash espoused by Mr. Le Pen's National Front is mirrored by those of like-minded and rising groups across Europe," it says.

The paper calls Le Pen a "xenophobic candidate" who "preys on people's unease about immigration, rising crime, and a sense that France's identity is being undermined by American culture and European integration. [The] fact that he got as far as he did is a tribute to the depth of these insecurities, and the failure of France's unimaginative political establishment to address them."

The editorial says that a sense of which political direction France is going to take will not emerge until parliamentary elections in June. But it remarks that regardless of the outcome of that election, "France's mainstream parties will then have to address voters' grievances, and their alienation from the political process."


An editorial in "the Irish Times" says that the while yesterday's presidential election results were "great news" for Europe as well as for France, the "dangers arising from apathy and disaffection with the political system will continue to agitate French politics during the forthcoming parliamentary election campaign."

Chirac will now seek to secure a center-right majority in June's general elections to consolidate his victory. But the paper says "he may find it difficult to overcome the fragmentation which gave him less than 20 percent of the vote in the first round of the presidential elections. [Whoever] wins in June needs a mandate to tackle the issues thrown up by this presidential campaign."

Le Pen won the support of approximately one in five French voters whose concerns include "crime and insecurity, immigration, and political alienation from a system widely perceived as run by a corrupt elite with little real connection to the mass of ordinary people. Many more voters feel there is too little distinction between the main parties and are unsure about the democratic accountability of a governing system shared between France and its partners in the European Union."

"The Irish Times" concludes that the upcoming parliamentary campaign "provides a real opportunity to reconnect France's political class with a skeptical and confused electorate."


In a commentary in the "Sueddeutsche Zeitung," Gerd Kroecke writes that in the face of a threat to the republic, Le Pen unwittingly united France as never before. He says it was to be expected that, after the strong public outcry following Le Pen's unexpected success in the first round of the presidential voting, he would be defeated in yesterday's final round. But he adds that "this phenomenon will prevail in French politics for some time to come."

There is a possibility that Le Pen's far-right National Front could surface as a parliamentary group in the next elections, Kroecke says. Le Pen will no doubt rise to the occasion in the June elections to the National Assembly, Kroecke writes.


In a contribution to "The Washington Post," Ronald Asmus of the Council on Foreign Relations discusses formulating a new role for NATO to characterize trans-Atlantic relations in the post-Cold War world. He says that in order for the alliance to survive, NATO must be given "a new mission and the tools to combat weapons of mass destruction, along with the capacity to move forces far and fast. In spite of American military superiority, we sometimes need our European allies more than we admit." He says whereas the U.S. administration "initially resisted using NATO in Afghanistan, it now finds itself asking for allied support, as U.S. forces are stretched thin." And when it comes to the long-term commitment to reconstruct the region, he says, "Europe's help is even more badly needed."

Asmus calls on U.S. President George W. Bush not to underestimate the importance of the NATO alliance, and to try harder to "hammer out a common approach" to global issues and challenges. "History occasionally grants leaders opportunities to turn tragedies into opportunities," he writes. "11 September has given President Bush such an opportunity in U.S.-European relations." The U.S. president, he says, must now decide "whether the United States and Europe will, together, face the strategic challenge of our time by reforming NATO to act beyond Europe. Otherwise, the Bush administration runs the risk of presiding over the decline and eventual demise of the greatest alliance in history."


In an analysis in "The New York Times," staff writer Steven Erlanger writes from Vienna that France's right-wing presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen's "anti-crime and anti-immigration themes have found echoes across Europe, from Austria and Italy to Belgium, Denmark, the Netherlands, and Germany." But Erlanger says Le Pen "is also tapping into a new anxiety about the loss of national identity, made more acute by the prospect of Europeanization and globalization, which [Le Pen] combines to call 'Euro-globalization.' "

As Erlanger puts it, "Europeans are discovering that as the European Union completes itself [geographically and institutionally, the] nation-state [is] itself dying." As national structures give way to "faceless European institutions," he says, there is mounting anxiety that Brussels will not take care of its citizens as well as national governments have in the past.

Added to this are fears over the phenomenon of immigration, which become linked to an increasing fear of rising crime. Europe's major political parties have failed to address these concerns, says Erlanger. Right-wing candidates such as Joerg Haider in Austria, Le Pen in France and Pim Fortuyn in the Netherlands have exploited "a general disappointment with mainstream politicians," and have made surprisingly high showings in percentage terms.

Their success, Erlanger says, may be partly explained by the failure of politicians from the European left or the right to have any serious answer to these issues.


An analysis in "The Wall Street Journal Europe" today says that following French President Jacques Chirac's election victory, the question remains whether Chirac can use the "jolt" of right-wing candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen's surprising success in the first round of voting "to shake France out of its political inertia and economic decline."

The paper says Chirac's party is not so much pro-free market as it is corporatist, "and as such has provided little alternative to the dominant French political culture of socialism." But now, it says, Chirac has "a new and large opportunity. With no need to run again for elected office, he can think about his legacy. [He] may well be able, if he so chooses, to enact the tax cuts and labor market deregulation necessary to revive France's economic fortunes."

The "Journal" writes: "Chirac's choice of an interim prime minister to serve until the June elections will be a sign of how serious he is. There is a rising generation of free-market liberals in France, and if the president is serious about reform he will give them new prominence."

Chirac's success may help restore "a vital, growing Europe," says the paper -- but if he fails to use this opportunity, France "will have to wait for the Socialists to wake up [before] the country stops its slide to being the poor man of Europe."


A second editorial in "The New York Times" today discusses the creation of an international criminal court, and says Washington's objections to its formation are unfounded. "The fear in Washington is that American soldiers abroad could be charged unjustly with war crimes. Such a possibility is remote. The court already contains strong safeguards that ensure that it will deal only with the most serious of international crimes and can take a case only if a nation's own judicial system has declined to carry out a conscientious investigation of the charges."

The editorial goes on to say that Washington applied "unseemly pressure to even close allies in an attempt to stop the court. Now that those efforts have failed, the Bush administration should recognize that to help make the court as fair and effective as possible is in the American interest."

The editorial says in addition, "By depriving tyrants of a safe haven from prosecution, the court might deter some of the atrocities that end up demanding Washington's involvement."

The paper calls the U.S. administration's decision to unsign the treaty allowing for the court's creation "unfortunate." "No country has ever unsigned a treaty," it says, noting that Washington's decision could have long-term negative consequences by encouraging other nations to similarly remove their signatures from additional treaties.


An editorial in the French daily "Le Monde" says after Jean-Marie Le Pen's unexpectedly strong showing in first-round presidential elections on 21 April, and his eventual defeat yesterday by incumbent President Jacques Chirac, France must renew its efforts to come to terms with its past.

"Le Monde" writes: "It is a fact, a simple fact of history: Jean-Marie Le Pen [practiced] torture under the French uniform during the war of Algeria (1954-1962) [for] the jewel of our colonial empire." The paper says this information, printed in "Le Monde's" 4 May edition after an investigation by the paper's Algiers correspondent, has "practically passed unnoticed." It was not part of any public, televised or radio debate, and was not the subject of comment by editorial writers.

The paper says it appears as if this fact had "neither importance nor significance in the current debate over the state of our country and the regular progression of the extreme right [over] 20 years."

The editorial says the "heavy silence" on this issue belies a persistent colonial mind-set within the French identity, as do the votes for what it calls Le Pen's "clearly racist and xenophobic" platform.

Whatever the final political solution to the crisis brought about by Le Pen's strong showing, it says, the future government should clearly face the reality that xenophobia, especially the anti-Arab variety, has grown in France and abides without shame.


In the "International Herald Tribune," syndicated columnist William Pfaff discusses the situation in the Middle East in light of U.S. President George W. Bush's meeting late last month with Saudi Crown Prince Abdullah and ahead of his anticipated meeting tomorrow with Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.

The peace plan proposed by Crown Prince Abdullah and supported by the U.S. president offers Arab recognition and full normalization of relations with Israel in exchange for a full Israeli withdrawal from Palestinian territories occupied since 1967 and recognition of a Palestinian state. Pfaff says of the U.S. president's meeting with Sharon: "Bush has his work cut out. [No] Sharon government is going to give up the colonies. No Arab government is going to accept the Abdullah plan unless some Israeli government does give them up."

He notes President Bush has political reasons to maintain firm support for Israel. His father, former U.S. President George Bush, "made trouble for Israel because American money was being spent on colonies constructed on what legally is Palestinian land, and [he] was not re-elected." Meanwhile, Pfaff notes, colony construction continues even now, "despite the Oslo, Camp David, and Wye Plantation agreements, all of which postulated eventual Israeli withdrawal from all or most of the disputed territories."


In "The Washington Post," staff writer Richard Cohen says that criticizing the policies of the Israeli government is not the same as being anti-Semitic. He says whereas in Israel a multitude of opinions about government policies and the occupation are accepted and openly debated, in America criticism of Israel is equated with anti-Semitism. He says anti-Zionism -- "hating, opposing, fighting Israel" -- is not the same as anti-Semitism, which he defines as "hating Jews anywhere on account of supposedly inherent characteristics." Cohen writes: "If I were a Palestinian living in a refugee camp, I might very well hate Israel for my plight -- never mind its actual cause."

Cohen notes: "There has been an upsurge of anti-Semitic incidents in Europe. But there has also been an upsurge of legitimate criticism of Israel that is not in the least anti-Semitic." He says to "turn a deaf ear to the demands of Palestinians, to dehumanize them all as bigots, only exacerbates the hatred on both sides. The Palestinians do have a case. Their methods are sometimes, maybe often, execrable, but that does not change the fact that they are a people without a state."

Cohen says "to equate anti-Zionists or critics of Israel with anti-Semites [implies] their hatred is unreasonable, unfathomable, based on some crackpot racial theory or misguided religious zealotry. It dismisses all criticism, no matter how legitimate, as rooted in prejudice and therefore without any validity."


An editorial in the "Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung" comments on the prospects for Middle East peace. The paper says Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon may demonstrate some willingness to settle the conflict during his U.S. trip to in order to garner some praise as "a man of peace" from the Americans. But the commentary points to the contentious problems of the Israeli settlements on occupied Palestinian territory.

Judging by previous experience, the editorial says, Sharon will insist upon keeping them there and Palestinians will insist on their being eradicated. A future Palestinian state would hardly be viable if it lost this land, which would splinter its security zone. Palestinian militants are spurred on by their determination to hold onto the settlements and claim that their people have a chance to exist only if Israel disappears.


The Swiss "Neue Zuercher Zeitung" discusses the next stage of a Middle East peace process following the announcement on 3 May to convene a conference in Madrid attended by the foreign ministers of the U.S., Russia, the EU, and UN.

From the American point of view, says the commentary, such an international conference is a gesture toward calming the Middle East tensions without committing itself too much. The most cogent argument in favor of the conference is the publicity factor. Such a conference provides yet another impetus to the media, the Israeli and Palestinian public and the Arab countries to retreat from "patriotic mobilization and again turn to the question of how to reach a settlement."

A final argument in favor of the conference, says the paper, is the possibility of giving those in Israel promoting peace a new lease on life. But no matter what conclusion is reached in Madrid, in the end it will depend on the two conflicting parties to decide whether they are willing to adopt any solution put forward by the conference participants.

(RFE/RL's Dora Slaba contributed to this report.)