A Self-Inflicted Wound

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After 1,000 nearly flawless days as prime minister, Lionel Jospin blotted his copybook. He did it by speaking a single word of truth. But in the arcane world of diplomacy--especially Middle East diplomacy--there are times when calling a spade a spade is the last thing to do. Jospin paid for that mistake with a minor head wound in Ramallah and some lost feathers in his political rivalry with President Jacques Chirac back home.

Jospin's troubles started at a Feb. 24 press conference in Jerusalem, when he denounced Hizballah's "terrorist attacks against Israeli soldiers and civilian populations." There is little doubt that the Iranian- and Syrian-backed Lebanese Shi'ite militia is guilty of repeated acts--including rocket attacks and bombings within Israel--that would qualify as "terrorist." But when they strike at Israeli troops who have illegally occupied southern Lebanon since 1982, and who regularly pummel their positions, Hizballah can claim to be carrying out legitimate military actions in defense of Lebanese sovereignty. By failing to make that distinction--or even mention an Israeli occupation that has been condemned by French-backed U.N. resolutions--Jospin seemed to be siding with his Israeli hosts.

Two days later, it was payback time. As Jospin emerged from a meeting at Birzeit University near Ramallah, Palestinian students shouted anti-French slogans and unleashed a hail of walnut-sized stones--the kind used in Biblical stonings--that put the Prime Minister and his entourage in real physical danger. Bodyguards huddled around Jospin, unfolded bulletproof shields over his head, and finally shoved him into an armored car. But the vehicle was blocked by demonstrators, some of whom kicked the doors, climbed on the roof and fractured the windows with stones and metal bars. By the time the car pulled away, Jospin had a bleeding cut on the back of his head and a crisis on his hands.

Two crises, in fact. The first was in the Middle East, where Arab countries that had long viewed France as their best friend in the Western camp denounced this apparent betrayal. In reality, France's so-called Arab policy had evolved markedly since the Six Day War of 1967, when President Charles de Gaulle cut off arms sales to Israel and famously referred to the Jews as "an elite people, sure of themselves and dominating." Socialist François Mitterrand made friendlier overtures to Israel and his successor, Chirac, has striven to maintain an even-handed policy that he hoped could give France a mediating role in the peace process. Now, though Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat embraced Jospin warmly after the Birzeit riot, France's reputation for evenhandedness is tarnished. As the conservative former Foreign Minister Herve de Charette declared in Parliament: "The work of years has been reduced to dust."

The second crisis was the political one at home. Ever since the left won a Parliamentary majority in 1997, Socialist Jospin has been sharing power with the Gaullist Chirac in an awkward arrangement known as cohabitation. This situation, which the framers of the Fifth Republic apparently never anticipated, results in a double-headed executive in which the Prime Minister runs the day-to-day affairs and the President acts as head of state with primary responsibility for foreign policy. Though the Constitution does not explicitly say so, French presidents since De Gaulle have tended to regard foreign policy as their own "preserved domain." By appearing to challenge that prerogative, Jospin was acting within his legal rights but unwisely opened a public rift with Chirac, whom he is likely to face in the 2002 presidential election.

Chirac lost no time in exploiting Jospin's misstep. While his rival was still in the Middle East, he ordered him to contact the Elysee immediately upon his return. Jospin pointedly ignored Chirac's summons, though the two men spoke on the telephone and held their regular tête-à-tête before the weekly cabinet meeting last Wednesday. On that occasion, Chirac sternly reminded Jospin that "the interest of France commands that it speak with a single voice."

Chirac's allies were more aggressive during a heated parliamentary debate, charging Jospin with "humiliating France" and spoiling its Middle East policy. Jospin defended himself deftly, insisting that "being impartial should not make us blind to acts that endanger the peace process ... [or] indulgent toward those who use violence."

Though right in principle, Jospin's undiplomatic outspokenness on foreign policy clearly cost him points in his competition with Chirac. According to one poll, 53% of the French thought Jospin had acted wrongly, with only 37% supporting him. By trying to appear presidential--and stumbling--Jospin has hurt his future chances. But two years is a long time and, thanks to cohabitation, there will surely be more clashes to come. Which is why some observers say the real lesson of all this is the need to change the French Constitution. When it comes to running a government, it seems, one head is better than two.