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2002:  A Landmark Year for French President Chirac, at Home and Abroad

France had a dizzying 2002, as voters cast out a seemingly popular leftist government, and aligned themselves squarely behind center-right President Jacques Chirac. The country played a prominent role in world affairs, including Iraq, European expansion and the Ivory Coast rebellion.

2002 was undisputedly the year of French President Jacques Chirac. Mr. Chirac soared from the lows of a shaky re-election bid, to the heights of his current position, commanding a government and parliament dominated by his Union for the Presidential Majority Party.

Mr. Chirac rallied the political left and right behind him to defeat far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, during the second-round of presidential elections this spring. The leftists, who dominated the French parliament for five years, are in disarray and leaderless. Philippe Moreau Defarges, an analyst at the French Institute for International Relations, said Mr. Chirac finally has a free hand to govern.

"He has no limitation. He is really in power," he explained. "The opposition is almost destroyed. He has a strong and cohesive majority. He must succeed. And success in politics is quite difficult."

So far, Mr. Chirac has a string of at least short-term achievements. His interior and justice ministers have moved quickly to make good on campaign promises to crack down on crime. Mr. Chirac's hand-picked prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, has also unveiled far-reaching legislation to decentralize political decision-making.

Most importantly, according to French analyst Collette Ysmal, the Chirac government has put on what she calls a brilliant public relations campaign. Ms. Ysmal, a researcher at the French Institute of Political Studies in Paris, says Mr. Chirac's government sends the message, it is addressing public concerns. But she criticizes it for, in her view, embracing an agenda that benefits employers and the rich, at the expense of France's working class. She believes Mr. Chirac was re-elected largely because he is likable. But smiling nicely, Mrs. Ysmal says, is not what is needed to govern France.

Still, President Chirac has won praise at home and abroad for his deft handling of the Iraq issue in the United Nations Security Council. France helped convince the United States to compromise on a U.N. resolution that did not mention an automatic recourse to force, if Iraq fails to live up to arms inspection and disarmament requirements.

Guillaume Parmentier, head of the French Center on the United States, said Mr. Chirac relied on his new foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, to press the French point of view. "He was among those people who convinced the administration that this was the road to follow," he said. "In practical terms, the way he did this was especially through Villepin. The way he played it was by going through those people in the Bush administration who were in favor of taking the U.N. route, and opposed the others in practice. I think this was a rather intelligent thing to do."

Mr. Parmentier also credits Foreign Minister de Villepin with improving often abrasive relations between Paris and Washington. Unlike his Socialist predecessor, Hubert Vedrine, Mr. de Villepin speaks English well, and has lived in the United States.

But not all has gone France's way this year. French mediation has so far failed to put together a peace agreement in Ivory Coast, where rebels and the forces of President Laurent Gbagbo have been fighting since September.

France has extensive economic interests, not to mention historical ties, with its former West African colony. The French government has dispatched hundreds of troops to protect foreign residents, and to block new advances by rebel forces. And it has offered to host a new round of peace talks in January.

But analyst Moreau Defarges believes Paris is a reluctant player in African affairs. "There is a deep trend of French withdrawal from Africa. That's clear. That's the historical trend," he said. "Because France is conscious today that Africa must be independent, economically and politically speaking. But the problem is that, in any region, you need order and a policeman. If this region is unable to establish order, to keep order by itself, you need a policeman. That's why France is coming back to the Ivory Coast, against its will."

Closer to home, Mr. Chirac's government has closed an unpopular Calais shelter for asylum seekers, and managed to keep generous European Union farming subsidies. France and Germany have also reinforced ties and their powerful positions at the heart of the European Union.

But the union's executive body, the European Commission, has warned France to get its economic house in order, and particularly, to cap its growing budget deficits.

Financial experts like Ali Fatemi predict Prime Minister Raffarin's government may face a wave of strikes and unrest, as it tackles sticky issues like privatization, and retirement benefits.

Mr. Fatemi, who heads the economics department at the American University of Paris, predicts a possible war in Iraq may also hurt the French economy. That's because, he says, French companies and the government have invested billions of dollars in contracts and investments in Iraq.

"The economy of France in this case would be very much affected by how the Iraqi situation is settled," stressed Mr. Mr. Fatemi. "If we have a smooth transition in Iraq and a new government that respects all the obligations of the former governments and so on, that's one thing. If there's chaos, if there's disintegration, if there's a sort of prolonged conflict. then I think we shall see very severe implications for the economy."

Part of VOA's yearend series