France is the hole in the European doughnut of power politics today. What is missing defines the entirety better than what is there.
France was largely absent from the world stage in August, as politicians joined workers in the month of Sundays known as la fermature annuelle, the moment when the French herd together elsewhere to get away from each other at home. But that predictable hiatus is not the absence that I have in mind.
For nearly a decade, French policy toward Europe and the world has been dominated by an unspoken conclusion, one that is unspeakable for French leaders and that they exert great energy to obscure. The unuttered notion holds that France is playing a constantly weakening hand in Europe and thus in global politics -- and knows it.
The concept of weakness as the center of French policy runs counter to French rhetoric and to a popular view in official Washington and U.S. public opinion. This U.S.-centric view holds that in a paroxysm of Gaullist illogic and self-delusion, France ruthlessly seeks to mold and dominate the European Union and turn it into a global counterweight to the United States, first of all by destroying NATO.
I can't swear that the idea would be totally unappealing to President Jacques Chirac and other French citizens if they thought they could achieve it.
But are they capable of such self-delusion or hubris? I think that instead they knowingly are playing a weakening hand as aggressively and skillfully as they can.
What would that change in practical terms? For one thing, it means that a politically divided Europe -- along "old" vs. "new" Rumsfeldian lines, for example -- would serve French goals and interests better than a united Europe. Divide and confuse would be a more available strategy than unite and rule in a European Union expanded this year to 25 members.
The old image of France being the jockey to Germany's -- and by extension Western Europe's -- horse is a casualty of German reunification and E.U. expansion. France today lags behind Germany in population, Britain in economic dynamism and Italy in some areas of military projection. France must increasingly make compromises and coalitions as best it can rather than show the way unilaterally. It must increasingly look outside Europe for those coalitions.
This approach shows in the decision by Chirac's government to go along quietly with the recent selection of a decidedly "new" (in Rumsfeld-speak) European Commission, the E.U.'s executive arm, which was created in the image and ethos of the French civil service. The incoming commission president is Jose Manuel Durao Barroso, Portugal's former prime minister, who has strongly supported the Bush administration in Iraq.
Durao Barroso chose for key commission posts free-market advocates from Britain, Italy, Denmark, the Netherlands and Poland -- all of which have troops in Iraq -- while giving relatively less important posts to France and Germany. By design or otherwise, he has assembled a commission dominated by politicians with strong roots in the pro-NATO or Atlanticist camp of European politics.
"We must now consider the commission an enemy" of France, French Socialist parliamentarian Arnaud Montebourg declared when the posts were announced. But Chirac's center-right government has been outwardly welcoming, stressing that the commission will have a vital role to play in convincing the French and other electorates to ratify the European Constitution.
The constitution, whose creation was guided by French hands, gives Germany greater political representation than France. Years ago, when France began to give way on what had been its firm demand for perpetual political parity with Germany in European institutions, a senior French official said to me in quiet frustration: "The truth is we are playing a weak hand, and it will get weaker in the future. We got what we could. But we can never say that aloud. Please remember that I did not just say it to you."
His comments echo now and conjure up Hemingway's literary counterpart to the hole in the doughnut. The writer said of his short stories that most important part was always what he had decided to leave out.
Chirac's ferocity on Iraq -- especially his fight to keep the NATO flag off Iraqi soil -- is defensive. He fears that the war in Iraq will become a Western "crusade" and that Muslims everywhere will indiscriminately lash out at Western countries, with France on the front lines. The kidnapping of two French journalists in Iraq and the linking of their fate to the treatment of Muslims in France made the point in horror-filled terms.
France's purpose is not to destroy and replace NATO, a goal made even less attainable by the composition of the new European Commission. Defending an exposed France, rather than ruthless domination of Europe, is what is on Chirac's mind.
That may not make him right in his choice of tactics or even strategy. But it does make his policies much more than spite or vain ambition. For one thing, it makes them understandable.