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Having at last arrived where he had long believed he rightly belonged, a resolute Jacques Chirac immediately got down to the business of restoring France's lost glory, and while at it convincing the world that his was the caliber of de Gaulle, Napoleon and Louis XIV.
Ignoring protests from Washington and Tokyo to Canberra and Wellington as well as Greenpeace and even demonstrators in Tahiti, the newly elected French president blasted a nuclear bomb in the South Pacific, under French Polynesia.
The unperturbed former mayor of Paris then proceeded to conduct a whole series of explosions. Nothing would make him budge; not Japanese prime minister Tomiichi Murayama's personal plea, not Australian foreign minister Gordon Bilne's wry remark that the blasts were a French Christmas present for the region's inhabitants, and not New Zealand prime minister Jim Bolger's memorable statement that one "is left wondering what part of 'no' the French government doesn't understand."
Yet Chirac had resolved to announce to the whole world that a new landlord had arrived in Paris, and that this guy was no sissy and his country was no anecdote; he was a Gaullist patriot, France under his leadership would return to be a world power, and the rest of the world would have to make way.
A decade later, France is the one making way, while Paris is ablaze, Chirac is the one reduced to an anecdote, and the world is in shock: How could the country that only yesterday threw its weight around, scaring some and offending others, now emerge so physically vulnerable, ideologically perplexed, and politically confused in the face of a massive challenge from within?
JUST WHAT fuels the French unrest may take some more time to determine. For now, the jury is still out on the role played by religious fundamentalism and the extent to which the violence is organized.
Still, one major component of the situation can, and should, be discussed already now, and it is post-colonial France's crooked view of the Arab world itself.
Several aspects of the situation cannot be disputed. First, it was but several generations ago that France had hardly any Arab population. Secondly, about a tenth of France is now Arab. And thirdly, for the past 40 years France has spearheaded the pro-Arab approach in the Western world.
Both emotionally and intellectually, then, many Israelis this week could hardly contain their Schadenfreude at the sight of France - the very country that for decades insisted Israel and its conflict with the Arabs were at the heart of the Mideast crisis - now getting a taste of that very challenge, in its very capital, and in complete disregard for the Fifth Republic's time-honored obsequiousness to the Arab world.
Back in France, at the same time, politicians focused on the immigrant population's mistreatment over the decades, resulting in festering slums, social immobility, political powerlessness, destitution and unemployment.
Surely, such soul searching is welcome, indeed long overdue, and if France emerges from this trauma a bit more humble in its attitude toward its own Arabs on the one hand, and less pontificating toward Israel on the other, no one in Jerusalem should be disappointed.
However, to be effective about the roots of their current malaise, the French must look beyond their festering ghettoes to the countries that in the first place discharged all that desperate humanity, and ask itself why those immigrants were in the first place so desperate to emigrate. And such introspection should lead to the grim conclusion that France has for decades been conducting a southern-flank diplomacy that can only be described as mad.
IN RETREATING from Algeria, France not only emancipated that sorry land, it also struck an alliance with the FLN, the movement that led the struggle against French colonialism in the Maghreb. It was soon after that change of course that Paris also started dismantling the alliance it had had with Israel since the mid-1950s, and which dominated its Mideastern policy until the early 1960s.
Initially all this seemed visionary and efficient. The French stopped getting killed in Africa, France itself entered an era of unprecedented prosperity, and as a bonus it also enjoyed special status in the Middle East as a power that, unlike Britain, America and Russia, had ostensibly undergone a counter-colonial epiphany of sorts.
In reality, however, France was actually waltzing with the very regimes that were nurturing the Arab world's backwardness, the ones that squandered the Middle East's petrodollars rather than use them for local development, the ones that presided over some of the world's highest birth, illiteracy and unemployment rates.
All those years, a guilt-ridden France's tragedy was that it treated the Middle East emotionally and ideologically rather than rationally and economically. A more sober outlook would have made it understand that the Mediterranean had come to separate between one landmass with surplus people and another with surplus capital. That the two would meet (the way they did, on a much smaller scale, between Israel and Palestinians after 1967) was inevitable. The only question was whether this would happen by Arab labor moving north, or European capital moving south.
France knowingly chose the former, thus pulling into its midst a Trojan horse and potentially touching off a great migration not altogether unlike the one that destroyed Rome.
It's not too late for France to offset this trend.
However, that entails making the tough choice of confronting rather than pandering to Arab despotism. It means conceding that dictatorship, and not the conflict with Israel, is the root of Mideastern despair, and it means massively investing in the Arab economies themselves, so they finally offer opportunities to their youths at home rather than send them abroad.
The US, which the French so much like to deride for its lack of international conscience and diplomatic vision, actually did all this wisely and successfully vis-a-vis its own potential supplier of indigestible immigration, when it and Canada struck the NAFTA treaty with Mexico, in a move that ultimately led massive capital inflows and created millions of jobs south of the Mexican-American border.
Curiously enough, just when the North Americans were focusing on creating opportunities for their southern neighbors, the French went to the other side of the globe, and got down to the much more urgent business of blasting nukes.
The writer, a senior columnist for The Jerusalem Post and until recently its executive editor, is author of The Diaspora and the Lost Tribes of Israel.
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