So what's Jacques Chirac's game? The rules seem simple enough: When it's the turn of the President of France to speak, he expresses breathtaking contempt for everyone else. Everyone, that is, except dictator-murderers like Zimbabwe's Robert Mugabe and Iraq's Saddam Hussein, whose diplomatic champion he has become.

Chirac's performance in Brussels this week was so clumsy that it surprised even the French. Members of the European Union were meeting to iron out a common position on Iraq, and were joined by applicants to the EU from central and eastern Europe. These included a group of nations that had recently expressed support for the U.S. hard line against Saddam Hussein. At a press conference, Chirac lectured these nations in an astonishing manner. He called their pro-American letter "irresponsible," and evidence that they had been "badly brought up." "They missed a good opportunity to keep quiet," Chirac said.

"Badly brought up"? What kind of an international showdown is this? The French regard the American global presence as that of a wild and trigger-happy cowboy. To face off against him, Paris is assuming the stance of a supercilious French governess ready to tongue-lash the whole of Europe into submission.

French TV showed a succession of eastern European foreign ministers attempting to maintain their dignity while responding to Chirac. One Czech representative tried to smile as he termed the French attitude "undemocratic." The Hungarian minister said icily that he hoped his refusal to respond would be evidence of his decent upbringing.

"We thought we were preparing for war with Saddam Hussein and not Jacques Chirac," the Czech deputy foreign minister told The New York Times. Eastern Europe "definitely cannot remain silent" about Iraq, he said.

Compared to Parisian diplomatic contempt, American efforts begin to look remarkably deft. No sooner had France and Germany established their common opposition to American aims, for example, than the U.S. characterized them as "Old Europe" even as it worked to bring a "New Europe" into plain view. Now that Chirac has made his countermove—telling upstart Europe it should be seen and not heard—the American and British governments look like a pair of pretty smooth operators.

The New York Times' account takes a stab at interpreting Chirac's behavior. Support for the U.S., writes reporter Craig S. Smith, "reinforced widespread suspicion in France that the poorer European countries are primarily attracted to European Union membership for economic reasons while their political allegiance will remain with Washington." Smith added that French foreign minister Dominique de Villepin had noted testily last weekend that "Europe is not a cash register."

This doesn't quite tell the whole story. The EU is a cash register, and France knows it. (Indeed, it is a more a German register than it is a French one.) Economic reasons—access to markets and jobs, not a desire to serve French ends—are driving the desire for membership. If anything, France is threatening to deny "New Europe" access to that register until it learns proper comportment, sits up straight, and says "merci."

France's problem isn't the upstart applicant counties and their supposed "allegiance" to Washington; major EU member states with successful economies also stand with the U.S. France's problem is French global pretension: Chirac wants applicant nations to kiss his ring. The applicant nations see the EU as being about a democratic Europe of which they are a part, while France perceives the EU as being an instrument of French global stature. Currently, it can boast primarily of maintaining a neo-colonial presence in Africa, and of suppressing the struggle for independence in Corsica. Running Europe would considerably brighten its resume.

Can France get the Europe it wants? Not by belittling the emerging states of the former Soviet empire. As a Romanian newspaper noted this week, "Communism wrung our neck while the honourable democracies issued communiqués." [Link courtesy of Glenn Reynolds.] It was to the U.S. and its then-maligned anti-communism that the east looked. Apparently, it's still looking this way.