There is something slightly forlorn about the French President, Jacques Chirac’s four day visit to South America. Chirac, who is due to land in Santiago Friday, May 26, is coming into the last year of his second presidential term.
At home he is plagued by a political scandal concerning supposed attempts to smear the interior minister and presidential hopeful, Nicolas Sarkozy. This comes on top of last year’s humiliating "non" in the referendum on the EU constitution, and shortly after weeks of rioting raised serious questions about the credibility of France’s much flaunted social model.
Still, the French are well regarded by many Chileans, not least for their impressive welfare state, the sanctuary they offered thousands of Chilean refugees in the 1970s and Paris’ reputation for standing up to Washington.
Despite France’s losing battle to retain great power status, Chirac’s entourage of five ministers, dozens of businesspeople and representatives from French academic and artistic circles is bound to lend the visit a sense of pomp.
Explaining the reasons for the South American tour, French presidential spokesman Jerome Bonnafont emphasized commercial ties. "You have to go where the growth of the world economy is, where development is taking place and present France’s successes and capabilities," he told reporters.
It is expected that Chirac and Chilean President Michelle Bachelet will discuss the sale to Chile of a US$ 40 million military satellite to be made by the European consortium Europe Aeronautic and Space Company.
The idea of buying the satellite was first aired during a state visit to France by former Chilean president Ricardo Lagos in 1999. Lagos’s defense minister Jaime Ravinet signed a sales contract with his French counterpart last year, but the project has yet to receive full presidential endorsement. Chilean government sources say that several technical and contractual matters need to be resolved.
Bachelet, who speaks fluent French, is also expected to show her guest the Santiago metro, built largely be French contractors.
Chirac travels to Chile from Brazil where his talks with the Brazilian President Lula da Silva covered Brazilian plans to sell ethanol to France; the interest of the European television consortium DVB to enter the Brazilian market; the possibility of French contractors tendering for the construction of a helicopter factory for the Brazilian plane maker Embraer; and possible Brazilian plans to build a third nuclear power station.
It wasn’t all business, however, and Chirac found time to address the Brazilian parliament and muse admiringly about the new generation of female leaders coming to power: in Europe (Germany’s Angela Merkel), Africa (Liberia’s Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf) and Latin America (Michelle Bachelet in Chile).
Another point that may have been on the presidential agenda in Brasília is the freeing up of agricultural markets. Trade talks in the WTO and negotiations on a free trade agreement between the South American bloc Mercosur and the EU are stalled, in part, due to European agricultural protectionism. France firmly opposes plans to reform the EU Common Agricultural Policy.
As "de facto" spokesman for third world economic rights, President Lula has made it clear that access to western agricultural markets for southern producers is a condition "sine quo non" for any advance in world trade talks.
In an interview with the French daily Le Monde, Lula also made a point of saying that he supported the Bolivian gas nationalization, another issue the two leaders may have broached in private.
Despite their differences on agriculture, Lula and Chirac share a professed commitment to global social justice. Both are champions of a proposed tax on air travel to finance HIV medication for the world’s poor. Chile is also a firm backer of the scheme.
Chirac went out of his way to heap praise on the social policies of his Brazilian host and even backed his re-election. "He will be re-elected," forecast the French president confidently. "That’s the best thing for Brazil because he’s an intelligent and reasonable man."
He added: "President Lula has done some extraordinary things, the ‘family purse,’ (bolsa família) that means he’s created an income for 18 million people … that means 18 million votes instantly."
The choice of Brazil and Chile was seen by the Argentine daily Clarin as a deliberate snub to President Nestor Kirchner. France and Argentina have historic ties, but the decision to re-nationalization the water consortium Aguas Argentina, of which the French group Suez had a 40 percent stake, has soured relations between Buenos Aires and Paris.
Indeed, Chirac seems to have deliberately chosen to visit the two left leaning South American states governed by what the West regards as "responsible progressives," and not Venezuela, Bolivia and Argentina, whose leaders Western pundits label as "irresponsible populists."
The warm relationship between President Lula and Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez, and Michelle Bachelet’s friendly rapport with her Venezuelan, Bolivian and Argentine counterparts, show that this is not a distinction that the leaders themselves chose to make.
Justin Vogler works for the Santiago Times.