Back in the day, the mainstream news media used to revel in the political misfortunes of the European leaders that had supported George W. Bush and “his” Iraq war. The depiction of their downfalls constituted a veritable morality play. Think José María Aznar, Silvio Berlusconi, and Tony Blair. Never mind that both Aznar and Blair left office of their own volition, Blair after leading his Labor Party to victory in the 2005 British elections. As for Aznar, keeping a longstanding promise, he declined to seek a third term even though all the polls showed that his Popular Party would cruise to victory in the March 2004 Spanish elections. Never mind that the PP would then go down to a surprise defeat only after a terrorist attack killed nearly 200 people in Madrid just days before the vote, thus putting Spaniards on notice that support for America would be paid for in their blood. Never mind the facts. The grand narrative of the European masses rising up against the “deeply unpopular” Iraq war dictated that the (supposed) difficulties of the Bush allies had to be the story.
If Aznar, Berlusconi, and Blair were the villains in this narrative — traitors to the law-abiding, peace-loving European cause — the heroes also came in three: German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder and the dynamic French duo of President Jacques Chirac and Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin. Oddly enough, however, when these leading lights of the Franco-German “axis of peace” themselves went down to defeat or bowed out without a fight as their electoral prospects dimmed, this was not a story.
The first to go was Schröder. In September 2002, Schröder had gained reelection by a razor-thin margin after campaigning on a platform of fervent and categorical opposition to what was at the time the mere possibility of an American-led military intervention in Iraq. In September 2005, two and a half years after the war had become a reality, he would be defeated by Angela Merkel by a still narrow, but more substantial, margin.
A year and a half after that, it was Jacques Chirac’s turn to go, as he handed over power in May 2007 to Nicolas Sarkozy, his bitter inner-party rival in the Union for a Popular Movement (UMP). Earlier, there had been some talk of Chirac seeking a third term. But with his approval ratings mired at depths never before seen in the history of the Fifth Republic, there was never any serious chance of that. In July 2006, the number of respondents expressing confidence in Chirac bottomed out at 16 percent in the monthly “barometer” of French polling firm TNS-Sofres. No other French president had ever fallen below 30 percent in the poll. (For more on the subject, see here.)
There was also some talk of Chirac passing the Gaullist baton to his protégé de Villepin, who had in the meanwhile been promoted to prime minister. But with his own polling numbers closely tracking those of Chirac, de Villepin’s prospects of challenging Sarkozy for the UMP nomination were hardly any better. He is presently on trial in Paris for his alleged role in the so-called Clearstream Affair, an apparent attempt to use forged documents to discredit Sarkozy and derail his presidential aspirations.
But the ignominious end of the Chirac-de Villepin era in France did not represent the last gasp of the “axis of peace.” As a result of the narrowness of her 2005 victory, Chancellor Merkel had been forced into a “grand coalition” government with Schröder’s Social Democrats and forced to accept Schröder’s former chief of staff, Frank-Walter Steinmeier, as her foreign minister. Although less flamboyant than the indicted French diplomat and poet, Steinmeier had been something like de Villepin to Schröder’s Chirac — or perhaps, more exactly, like Chirac to Schröder’s de Villepin. For even if Schröder was the angry public face of the German component of the “axis of peace,” in German policy circles it is widely believed that the idea of going on the offensive against the Bush administration had originated with Steinmeier. Now, however, Steinmeier has himself gone down to a crushing defeat in the German elections. With Steinmeier as their chancellor candidate, the Social Democrats pulled merely 23% of the vote, barely more than half of their total in 1998 when Schröder was first elected chancellor. The final vestige of the “axis of peace” will thus be leaving the halls of European power.