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When Jacques Chirac became president of France, the world seemed headed toward a better future. The Cold War had ended happily, a New Middle East seemed around the corner, Microsoft was about to unveil Windows 95, the Bush recession gave way to renewed prosperity and Michael Jordan announced his return to professional basketball.
In fact, the retiring Chirac's entry into the Elysee Palace harmonized with the past decade's zeitgeist, whose optimism starkly contrasted with the pessimism and disillusionment that eventually marred his 12-year presidency.
Where did he fail?
FUTURE biographers may ridicule Chirac's nationalism, inspired by his alter egos Charles de Gaulle and Napoleon. There was almost something comic, for instance, about his demonstrative exit from an EU event last year when a French representative spoke English. Chirac's exhortation at the moment - "You can't base a future world on just one language, just one culture" - made his Gaullist inferiority complex seem almost as pathetic as Hugo Chavez's or Muammar Gaddafi's.
Chirac also could not alone be blamed for the economic setbacks of a succession of prime ministers, like Alain Juppe's failure to deliver Chirac's promised tax cuts due to a commitment to meet EU deficit goals, or socialist Lionel Jospin's shortening of the work week by a 10th to 35 hours.
True, the French economy continued to suffer from low growth rates, prohibitive taxes and rigid labor laws, but Chirac did what he could to reform the health care and pension systems in line with the privatization drive he had led as Francois Mitterrand's prime minister.
Even Chirac's two monumental political blunders - calling an early election in '97 only to see the Left win it by a landslide, and then in 2005 seeing the voters reject the EU constitution he backed - should not in themselves rule his presidency a disaster; de Gaulle and Napoleon suffered worse defeats.
Not to mention the narrow Jewish viewpoint, from which Chirac will be remembered admiringly for his courageous admission that "French people and the French state" were accomplices to Nazism's crimes against the Jews; it was no small thing, having been made formally and publicly against the backdrop of an anti-Semitic renaissance.
All told, Chirac's presidency would have possibly been remembered as disappointing or arrogant, but not as the spectacular failure it actually became as the Middle East - whose illnesses he both ignored and fanned - came to haunt him.
THE NEWLY crowned Chirac was not alone in his initial failure to notice - let alone address - history's approaching challenges.
None of his contemporaries, from Bill Clinton and Boris Yeltsin to John Major and Yitzhak Rabin, saw in time that Islamic fundamentalism would succeed communism as the free world's nemesis. Chirac's blindness was only more grotesque, considering his quixotic insistence on announcing his arrival at the Elysee with nuclear blasts - a move which, besides provoking the entire Pacific Rim, sought to impress former enemies like distant Russia while ignoring the new ones that awaited France atop minarets, behind veils and within festering slums a bike ride away from the Eiffel Tower.
Chirac will not be accused of causing the fundamentalist ascendancy; that distinction will always be reserved for Jimmy Carter, whose hassling of the shah of Iran paved the way for Islamism's first takeover of a country. Rather, Chirac will epitomize an escapist Europe's denial of its own Middle Eastern scourge.
"War is always proof of failure," he said didactically a week before the invasion of Iraq, conveniently ignoring the fact that the war he so eloquently condemned had already been waged - by the enemy - and that what was therefore at stake by then was not the war's declaration, but the engagement of its battles.
Chirac's immediate damage was less in his refusal to fight or even in his dissuading others from doing so, but in stalling the attack at the UN, where he insisted Saddam be given more time to disarm "peacefully." It was in those lost months that Saddam littered Iraq with the weaponry, dynamite and suicide attackers that have since torn it asunder.
A PRODUCT of the oil-embargo trauma of the 1970s as Valery Giscard d'Estaing's premier, Chirac was programmed to pander to the Arab powers that be, while never caring a fig about the lot of the Arab masses. Heck, even Eastern Europe's hard-won liberty meant little to him, when he said - in response to Poland's siding with America on Iraq - that it "missed a good opportunity to keep quiet." This, not Chirac's habitual pontifications to Israel, was France's real idea of international harmony under his rule.
Yet as history's ironies go, the more Paris denied the Middle East's disease - namely its unelected regimes' refusal to deliver enlightenment, mobility, prosperity and freedom - the more its symptoms arrived on French shores, as thousands of downtrodden Arabs sought there what their own leaders, Chirac's longtime friends, would not create here. Even more ironically, once there the ostensibly pro-French Arabs would not become French, and the ostensibly pro-Arab French would keep them at arm's length - economically, socially and physically, too.
The result - an alarmed Chirac's 2004 ban on wearing religious symbols in schools, and a disenfranchised immigrant community's violent eruption the following year - was almost as banal as his disappearance while Muslims torched thousands of cars across France. It also encapsulated the Chirac presidency's tragic fall from an imperial stratosphere into a social abyss, and highlighted the gap between Europe's anti-American bravado and day-to-day Islamic reality.
Of course, it could have been avoided had France demanded Middle Eastern reform rather than encourage Arab chauvinism, but that was impossible; it would have been so idealistic, so non-cynical, so American.
They say of producer Samuel Goldwyn that in planning one of his films he said he wanted "a story that starts with an earthquake and then works its way up to a climax." The Chirac presidency began with a nuclear bang in Polynesia and effectively ended when Muslims began rioting outside Paris.
The climax, however, is still working its way up.