Jacques Chirac: history might not remember him as a great president but as a flawed giant of French politics
Combative and charismatic, the politician who died last Thursday was a statesman of many contradictions
When France re-elected Jacques Chirac as president in 2002, left and centrist voters joked that they had to wear nose pegs as their sole motivation was to keep the far-right rabble-rouser Jean-Marie Le Pen out of the Elysee Palace.
With or without the pegs, the tactical voting by Chirac-loathing voters worked a treat. Chirac, representing the mainstream right, was handed a second term with a whopping 82 per cent share of the poll.
When the former president died on Thursday, aged 86, Mr Le Pen was gracious enough to say “even enemies deserve respect in death”.
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But the notion that Chirac owed success to a lesser-of-two-evils choice, with voters reluctantly favouring a conventional right-winger to block a sinister populist with repugnant views, overlooks a quirk of French politics.
Many conservatives in France – and Chirac was one of them – would have slotted comfortably into what was then Tony Blair’s “new Labour” UK government, a far cry from the more radical outlook of a party now led by Jeremy Corbyn.
It is improbable that the French mainstream centre-right under Chirac would have been reduced to the marginal status it has now under current president Emmanuel Macron.
Chirac was a statesman of many contradictions. As a student, he briefly courted the far left, selling the Communist Party newspaper L’Humanite on the streets of Paris.
As he drifted to the right and rose in political life, he proved himself to be passionate about France, with a steely resolve to promote the nation’s best interests. Notably, he opposed the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, a stance that brought him intense US and British criticism at the time.
He was also a man of considerable personal charm. His speeches and televised addresses were models of clarity and warmth, a valuable learning tool for foreigners like myself settling in France and trying to grasp the language of Moliere. With the charisma came substance, a level of statesmanship more accomplished heads of state often lack.
But there was also more than a hint of mischief in his approach to both his political and personal life. The man who enthusiastically collected artefacts from eastern and African cultures and loved Japanese sumo wrestling was not above resorting to irregular and even criminal means.
When he made way for Nicolas Sarkozy in 2007, after 12 years in office, he found himself stripped of the constitutional immunity that had protected him from investigation. His name had cropped up in several cases of alleged misuse of public funds but he was able to argue that testifying was incompatible with his presidential functions.
Finally, the past caught up with him. Four years after leaving office, he was tried in the notorious affair of fictitious city hall jobs created for cronies when he was mayor of Paris.
French justice is becoming less indulgent when dealing with corrupt politicians. But Chirac’s failing health, as well as his record of public service, saved him from jail; he received a two-year suspended sentence.
Far from turning their backs on a disgraced ex-president, the French public rallied in support, polls showing a far greater approval rating than when he was in office.
This popularity owed much to his common touch. He got on well with the provincial and predominantly farming communities of la France profonde, people who felt remote from Paris and saw in him a kindred spirit.
Chirac had a combative streak. He distrusted the British, repeatedly clashing with Westminster over international policy on Europe and beyond. In 2003, he was pilloried by the tabloid British newspaper The Sun; spoof front pages handed out on the Champs-Elysees portrayed him as a worm because of his opposition to the military offensive against Saddam Hussein.
But when he offered taunts of his own, they seemed less gratuitously offensive. In 2005, an unnoticed microphone picked up a barbed quip on the sidelines of a meeting in Russia with president Vladimir Putin and Gerhard Shroeder, who was then German chancellor. How, the French president asked, could anyone trust a nation that cooked as badly as the British and whose only contribution to European farming was mad cow disease?
I was among British correspondents invited to the Elysee on the eve of a state visit to Britain, when he talked with some affection of the “amour violent” – the turbulent love affair – of fractious neighbours who nevertheless respected and sometimes liked each other.
He undoubtedly had an edge. A staunch, if sometimes lonely, champion of the French language, he theatrically stormed out of a 2002 Brussels summit when a business leader delivered a speech in English.
He fell out bitterly with Mr Blair and not only on the war against Saddam Hussein. But on his death, the former British prime minister told France 24 television that they eventually “established a good relationship”.
A capacity to forge warm relationships in unexpected places was exemplified by his close bond with the former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri.
Shortly before his assassination in Beirut in 2005, Hariri told a colleague: “Jacques Chirac is my best friend.” Chirac, then still president, together with his wife Bernadette, were among the first world leaders to fly to Beirut to comfort Hariri's widow Nazek.
Chirac regarded himself as a friend of the Middle East in general and made it a key aim to restore French influence in the region. He paid a number of visits to the UAE and met both the Founding Father, Sheikh Zayed, and UAE President Sheikh Khalifa.
He was also the first French president to acknowledge the role of the French state in the deportation and extermination of Jews during the Second World War.
On pressing domestic issues, Chirac was weak, unwilling – unlike Mr Macron today – to brave the turmoil of street protests and see through difficult reforms.
History might not remember him as a great president, but as a flawed giant of French politics.
As France prepares to hold a national day of mourning on Monday, one word springs over and again from the lips of friends and former colleagues: empathy.
Mr Macron, whose own politics are closer to Chirac's than the socialist government he served before launching his centrist La Republique En Marche party, spoke for many compatriots when he said in his televised tribute: “We have lost a statesman whom we loved as much as he loved us.”
Colin Randall is a freelance journalist in France
Updated: September 28, 2019 06:45 PM