Chirac, who turns 73 tomorrow, has wild plans for his birthday party, according to the IHT. Ditching friends and family in Paris, Chirac plans to celebrate tomorrow night in the pretty but cold Latvian city of Riga with that renowned party animal, Vladimir Putin and his Latvian counterpart Vaira Vike-Freiberga.
‘Is it true?’ I enquire of Hugues Moret, Chirac’s spokesman, as we wait to board the Republique Francaise plane to the Latvian capital for a 2-day NATO summit. ‘I don’t think so,’ he said, and the group of journalists around us had a good laugh at the shoddy standards of American journalism. ‘Normally the Elysee staff give him a cake, but you know Chirac, he’s not one to make a fuss about his birthday.’
When we get off the plane it’s a different story. The Baltic birthday party is on. Under pressure from constant phonecalls following the IHT article, the Elysee is admitting that Putin wants to join the party. Excluded as a non-NATO member from the first summit held in the former Soviet Union, Putin has decided to gate-crash. Glowing from the recent decoration bestowed upon him by Chirac – the Grand Croix de la Légion d’Honneur – he’s developed an affection for his benefactor and requested a seat at his birthday dinner. According to the Elysee, Chirac was ‘touched.’ All that remained to be settled was the party venue.
Then things began to unravel. When we sat down to dinner, Jerome, Chirac’s main spokesman, insists that nothing has been settled. French journalists drafted in from Russia and the Baltics get shirty about the lack of French feelings for the former Soviet Republic that Putin is hoping to upstage.
‘This is their big moment of pride,’ said one. ‘When they finally get to shake of the Soviet cloak and say look, we can play a part in the international club without you,’
Jerome avoids the full throttle defence of Russian democracy he gave at the EU summit in Finland last month, but defends the Russian leaders motives. The proposal came from Russia and the choice of venue for the hastily arranged party was merely coincidence, he insisted.
Finally a phonecall from Russia put a lid on the affair, Dinner was off for ‘logistical reasons,’ the Elysee announced.
Problem was, in accepting Putin’s invitation, France had forgotten about public opinion in Latvia and its Baltic neighbours. Latvia declared independence from Russia in 1991 after five decades of occupation and Vike-Freiberga, 68, is the daughter of refugees who fled Soviet forces first to Moscow and then to Canada.
‘Imagine an East European coming to Paris and saying to the president, there’s a country France is having trouble with and I want to invite its leader to dinner here in Paris, Estonian President Toomas Hendrik Ilves told my colleague. ‘What would the feeling in France be? I can only guess.’
Once again, France, the champion of the underdog, had trampled over the little guys feelings. In 2003, during the debate over the U.S.-led war in Iraq, Chirac lashed out at the would-be EU members for siding with the U.S., famously saying they should have kept their mouths shut. The underdog is only important to France if it helps the Hexagon in its fight against the United States. In this battle, Russia is a more useful ally. And for Chirac, it’s the only battle that counts.