Jacques Chirac’s political career spans the time I have been closely watching French politics. He was first elected to the Assemblée Nationale in 1967, after serving as President Georges Pompidou’s personal fixer: Pompidou called him the “bulldozer.” It was Chirac who was sent out, pistol in pocket, to negotiate with PCF and union leaders at the height of the ’68 general strike. The tough guy with a cigarette dangling from his lips and a gun in his pocket, a Gaullist “enforcer”: this was the image of the early Chirac, quite different from the belated image of the beloved statesmen whom people are lining up today to mourn as he lies in state at the Elysée.
Enfeebled by age and infirmity, he shed the swashbuckling image that had accompanied him all the while he was scaling the heights of power. Today, the media tell us that Chirac died beloved by his countrymen. Perhaps. Olivier Duhamel, on his radio show Mediapolis, noted that the ratings of the Chirac retrospectives that have been running on TV this week have been abysmal. Macron’s lachrymose speech was overdone, even in the eyes of Duhamel’s co-host, Catherine Nay, a journalist who long covered the Right and whose companion is Albin Chalandon, a Gaullist heavyweight of the Chirac era. Clearly, those who knew Chirac as “bulldozer,” infighter, seducer, and swashbuckler would prefer to see him as he was in life rather than tel qu’en lui-même l’éternité le change.
So who was Jacques Chirac in life? He was, I would say, someone to whom the pursuit of power mattered more than the use of it. He was prepared to betray whomever he needed to betray to reach the top, and betray he did. He backed Giscard in ’74 against the Gaullist Chaban-Delmas and was rewarded with the prime ministership; then he sabotaged Giscard in ’81 and made possible the victory of François Mitterrand. He famously did in his “friend of 30 years,” Edouard Balladur in 1995. He promoted the career of Nicolas Sarkozy and nearly had him for son-in-law, then fell out with him (over Balladur) and may have conspired to blacken his name in the Clearstream scandal.
He served 12 years as president and several more as prime minister and party chief, yet France drifted under his leadership, perhaps because he always subordinated the business of government to the business of politics. He was a neoliberal in the 80s, when he thought that was the route to power, but discovered la fracture sociale in 1995 when it proved expedient to consider the social consequences of policies he had previously backed. He made much, rightly, of his refusal to forge any kind of alliance with the Front National, but he is also remembered for his 1991 Discours d’Orléans, in which he remarked that “le bruit et l’odeur” of foreigners on French soil would “drive the French worker crazy.” As Jean Quatremer notes in a perspicacious piece, Chirac opposed enforcement of the Schengen treaty and had to be coerced by Mitterrand, yet without his support the Maastricht treaty never would have passed, and Europe would not have the euro. Yet Chirac was hardly a convinced European: in his notorious Appel de Cochin of 1978 (I was living in France at the time, a stone’s throw from the hospital where Chirac was recuperating, and I vividly remember the shock of his speech), he accused Giscard and other pro-EU leaders of constituting un parti de l’étranger, of doing the bidding of the Americans and thus betraying the Gaullist spirit. He put his anti-American instincts to better use when he opposed the Iraq war in 2003. And most notably, perhaps, in his 1995 Discours du Vél d’Hiv’, he finally apologized for French complicity in the deportation of Jews during the war.
In Chirac, then, the good and the less good were thoroughly mixed. Power he obtained because he set his mind on it, but greatness eluded him because, for all his admiration of de Gaulle, he lacked une certaine idée de la France. And yet, and yet … there was something in him that made him stand out from the rest. He had that mysterious ability to become what the French call l’incarnation du pouvoir. He also had a common touch, which he often laid on a bit thick, but perhaps laying it on thick is part of the common touch that so eludes Macron, who lays it on thick in other ways (as in his speech mourning Chirac). Television wasn’t his medium, but in private I’m told that his warmth was obvious and genuine. Of course, he was also corrupt, as his conviction for using state funds to employ party workers showed. His friend and party co-founder Alain Juppé, whom he called le meilleur d’entre nous, paid the price. Chirac’s illness saved him from jail. Take him for all in all, he was a politician of an era when politics was more than the continuation of technocracy by other means. The Guignol de l’Info turned him into a comic icon, depicted with this post. But I see him rather as a tragic figure: not le roi fainéant that Sarkzoy accused him of being but rather the king who knew not what to do with the power he had, except in the rare moments, as at the Vél d’Hiv or before the Iraq War, when he was touched by grace.
Photo Credit: Arnaud 25, Guignols de l’info, via Wikimedia Commons, CC BY-SA 3.0.