France will bask in the international limelight for the next couple of months as its allies try to figure out its new president, Jacques Chirac. It hasn't taken Mr. Chirac long to make the transition from mayor of Paris to leader of the world's fourth largest economy, a nuclear power and joint architect, with Germany, of the European Union.
Mr. Chirac has moved quickly to assert himself. He has invited leaders of European Union member states to dinner in Paris on June 9, two days before he flies to Washington with European Commission president Jacques Santer to meet with President Clinton. Then it's off to Halifax, Canada, for the Group of Seven summit before returning to Cannes, the fashionable resort on France's Mediterranean coast, where he will host an EU summit.By then, Mr. Chirac, whose term of office lasts seven years, should be less of a mystery to his partners, particularly European, specifically German chancellor Helmut Kohl, who enjoyed a special relationship with his predecessor Francois Mitterrand for 13 years.
Conventional wisdom suggests there won't be a big rupture in the pivotal Franco-German alliance that's shaped post-war Europe.
And on the surface nothing seems to have changed. Within hours of his inauguration in Paris, Mr. Chirac dashed to Strasbourg for his first meeting with a foreign leader - Chancellor Kohl, naturally.
Mr. Chirac used the occasion to assure Mr. Kohl, his other European partners and the foreign exchange markets, that he didn't really mean what he said, or hinted, on the election stump. He won't abandon France's long standing franc fort policy or hold a referendum on economic and monetary union - in the previous referendum French voters came within a whisker of rejecting the EU's landmark Maastricht Treaty - or end the quasi-independent status the Bank of France has enjoyed since early 1994.
It remains to be seen whether Mr. Chirac will continue France's traditional pro-European stance. After all, he wavered before voting in favor of the Maastricht Treaty in the 1992 referendum.
Mr. Chirac's critics say a pro-European policy is incompatible with his main goal: cutting France's 12.3 percent jobless rate, the highest in the G7. Slashing government spending to meet the tough budget deficit requirements for joining a single currency is bound to collide with his commitment to create jobs.
But does it really matter which way Mr. Chirac jumps? Again, conventional wisdom says Germany is desperately anxious to keep France on the fast train to political and monetary union and will continue to make sacrifices to achieve this end.
The personal chemistry between Helmut Kohl and Francois Mitterrand extended the shelf life of the idea that the Bonn-Paris axis was evenly balanced, that the Franco- German motor was driving the EU, that the two countries were equals fixing an agenda that the other members of the bloc had to accept.
The Chirac-Kohl meeting in Strasbourg probably marked the last time the two countries publicly paraded the myth of equality. For 50 years Germany, weighed down by guilt, has strained to please France, even to sacrifice the deutsche mark, the most visible symbol of its post-war revival, for the greater goal of a united, French-fashioned Europe.
No longer. The upcoming generation of German politicians is not burdened by guilt and doesn't feel obliged to tailor European policies to suit France.
A more assertive Germany isn't necessarily bad for the EU. Indeed, it would provide a sorely needed counterweight to France's natural inclination toward protectionism and state intervention and its begrudging attitude to enlargement of the EU to Eastern Europe.
Germany is beginning to flex its muscles, warning it will not tolerate any politically inspired weakening of the criteria for economic and monetary union.
The political dimension of the single currency also is changing. In official German circles, it still is inconceivable without the participation of France. Economists and businessmen, however, say it can go ahead with the D-mark, Austrian Schilling, Dutch guilder and possibly the Belgian franc. Two- thirds of ordinary Germans say it shouldn't happen at all.
German politicians, aware they face a general election before 1999, the earliest realistic date for a single currency, are desperately trying to convince voters to ditch their cherished deutsche mark.
The latest desperate ploy to smother skepticism is a campaign to call the single currency the Franken, rather than the Ecu, a resurrected French Medieval coin. That will require Mr. Chirac to swallow his Gallic pride and ditch the chauvinism that comes so easily to the French when the new currency is discussed and the Cannes summit.
It may look like a seaside sideshow, but it neatly sums up the fundamental changes in the Franco- German alliance.