Is Jacques Chirac a late-blooming Leftist? Or just clever as an election nears?
An old adage attributed to Benjamin Disraeli, who was a prime minister of England in the 1800s, is that a man who is not a liberal at 16 has no heart; a man who is not a conservative at 60 has no head. What does that make French President Jacques Chirac?
Chirac, who will be 70 in November, appears to be doing a reverse-Disraeli. In recent weeks he has set about strongly endorsing causes typically far to the left of his conservative roots.
For example, Chirac claims to have been 'traumatised' by anti-globalisation demonstrations at last month's summit of industrialised nation leaders in Genoa.
One demonstrator was killed in the fury of the confrontation with Italian police.
And from listening to Chirac, one has to wonder if he would have been more comfortable being on the outside with the demonstrators than on the inside.
Of the demonstrators, he said: 'One can perfectly understand the concerns.'' Odd, as I know of very few who do understand. And he went on to say: 'France is probably the country closest in spirit' to the protests against globalisation. 'We want globalisation that is governed and humanised.''
Then again, maybe this isn't too surprising coming from Chirac, considering the presidential election in April. Chirac will face his arch political foe, Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.
So Chirac's overt pandering to the political left may be a crude political tactic. Chirac could be stealing an arrow from Jospin's quiver by going on record as being sceptical on globalisation.
However, other remarks are hard to figure.
Take Chirac's outburst at the Genoa G-7 meetings concerned Argentina's strained financial condition: 'We have to help. It's a matter of international solidarity. We will deploy all the means necessary to avoid collapse in Argentina.''
That's a blank cheque. Those remarks were not part of the official communiquÃ©. Nor is it known if they were delivered in private to the delegates before they were told to reporters covering the summit.
The problem was that nobody quite knew whether Chirac was speaking for the others or just for himself.
It looks like the latter. And that makes Chirac the king of moral hazard. Rule for bondholders: memorise Chirac's telephone number.
If you are ever worried about losing your assets in a sovereign default, take a deep breath and dial up Jacques Chirac, the man who 'has to help'.
Chirac, for whatever motivation, is turning himself into the presidential equivalent of an ambulance chaser.
Another issue high on Chirac's agenda is inclusion of the Baltic states in the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation. Chirac said on July 28 that France could not help but support the candidacy of Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania at the Prague meeting of Nato leaders in December 2002.
That's all the more strange considering that Chirac has given demonstrative support for the European Union's being entrusted with protecting the continent.
Now he wants to expand Nato?
And furthermore, Chirac left officials from the Baltic states with the distinct impression that he sees membership in Nato and the European Union as two sides of the same coin.
We are left to wonder what Vladimir Putin thought of these developments.
Maybe Putin will realise Chirac was in the Baltic when he issued his words of support for Nato membership.
On a completely different level, these are strange statements to be coming from a seasoned politician.
As with his words on Argentina, 'we have to help'', he left himself no exit if he ever needed to change his mind about inducting the Balkans into Nato.
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