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Billet Doux for Jacques Chirac

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« France is like someone who dresses up but has no party to go to », was teasing the other day a Turkish journalist friend over lunch at an Ankara fashionable terrace. I pondered on her comment later in the evening, in front of my TV screen, zapping for the latest news from Lebanon. The observation is sound-and sad, especially coming just a few days after the spectacular 14th of July celebrations. But is Marianne's fate to be superbly clothed but without a date?

The French have the knack of irritating their Western allies, particularly when it comes to world politics. However, one cannot deny that their governments in the past quarter of a century have been prescient in their foreign policy choices. This is certainly true about the Middle East, where France is still perceived as a prestigious power and sympathetic to the Arab cause, whereas the US and Britain have fallen in popularity, the EU looks uncertain, and Russia lacks credibility. Popular perception is often right, because is intuitive and based on common sense and street smarts.

Thinking more rationally and factually, France is, indeed, still a world-class player in geopolitical questions--the Near East and Africa being her fields of predilection. First, she has the resources that few other nations possess: Nuclear weapons, a highly professional army constantly gaining expertise in foreign operations, long-tradition diplomacy that commands respect in international organizations and with national governments, healthy economy in spite of employment and social shortcomings portrayed in the press, technologically advanced defence industry, mature political class, and a multicultural society in which representatives of the conflicting cultures of South-Eastern Mediterranean are well represented and keen to participate in finding once and for all a solution to the Palestinian question.

Second, as regards competencies, France has unmatched know-how in dealing with the Arab world, and specifically the Near East and Northern Africa. It is the result of a long imperialistic presence in the region, which she has managed to turn into a cultural and trading partnership. And, although the Anglo-Saxon business culture is widespread among the younger generations, France seems to understand much better than her Western allies the Arab political savoir faire and local mentalities. In addition, at this critical moment of regional history, France is probably the only global power in speaking terms with all the players involved in the conflict-current and future, as its range may well expand beyond today's boundaries.

If Marianne were short of dates, then she needed no longer worry. An invitation waits right now in her mailbox. Getting invited to a party is, like most wishes in life, subject to the law of attraction: One gets what one sets their mind on. Is Mr. Chirac's vision for France to be a Great Power of the 21st Century? Greatness now days is measured not so much in size but, rather, in terms of humanitarian scope and social justice, although muscle can add persuasion...If the answer is Yes, then his government should be willing to take bold initiatives quickly. France can only loose face in the Arab world by silently supporting other Western governments, apathetic to the horror of war in Lebanon, at stone-throw distance from the Southern borders of the EU-a European Union which, by the way, has missed a unique opportunity to act united, even in a practical issue such as the evacuation of refugees, left up to the diligence of the individual Member States concerned. This does not imply ignoring her EU partners, but, instead, taking the driver's seat and instilling an immediate sense of urgency-at the risk of creating a two-speed Europe, with a large group of laggards.

Vision leads to strategy, the success of which depends upon the right combination of resources and competences aiming at the fulfilment of stakeholder expectations. The stakeholders-not only the Palestinians and the Israelis, but the entire world-aspire at a fair and equitable settlement of the Palestinian question. France, by all indications, possesses the necessary ingredients required to work out such strategy, which should also firmly address the behaviour expected under international law from both belligerent factions. Timing and political courage are, however, still up for evaluation. There is always a gap in will-power between a date and the engagement ring.


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J N Couvas is an academic, journalist, and an international corporate and political adviser, specialising in Middle East and Balkan affairs. He teaches international strategy and executive leadership at universities in the region.

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