A national day of mourning is being observed today in France for Jacques Chirac. The two-term president, winner of the biggest landslide in the history of the Fifth Republic, died last week at the age of 86.
It’s not hard to be critical of Chirac. He left office with low approval ratings, and was later given a suspended sentence for a corruption scandal dating back to his time as mayor of Paris in the 1980s. During his time as president, many difficult policy questions were evaded, laying up problems that his successors would have to deal with.
The fact that the two following presidents, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande, were both defeated after a single term is testament to the unfinished work that Chirac had left for them. But it’s also a sign of his political skill.
Chirac understood the need for a president to convey reassurance, and also a sense of grandeur. Hugh Schofield at the BBC says that he “acted like a French president is supposed to – that is, projecting the permanent conviction that France, of course, is the best place in the world.”
His politics may have been all over the place, but they were a faithful reflection of his country’s fractured ideological landscape. As AFP puts it (my translation):
Between liberalism and faith in state power, between French laborism and a conservatism punctuated by bursts of Bonapartist audacity, he incarnated a synthesis of the different currents of the French right.
I’ve written a fair bit about Chirac over the years, and since the Crikey archive isn’t particularly user-friendly I thought it was worth putting together some of the highlights.
First, from February 2006, we see tension between Chirac and the centre-right majority in parliament over a law promoting a positive view of French colonialism:
Defence of the colonists is a totemic issue for many on the French right, such as Jean-Marie Le Pen, who cut their political teeth in the Algerian conflict of the early 1960s. But president Jacques Chirac knows not to stray too far from the centre, and after much controversy he announced at the beginning of the year that the law would be modified. “It is not for the law to write history”, he said.
This week, France’s constitutional council ruled that the clause in question was an administrative matter, not a legislative one, thus opening the way for it to be repealed by government decree without having to go back to parliament. The affair is being seen as a victory for Chirac and his prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, in their ongoing war of nerves with interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy.
The following month, Chirac walks out on a French business leader who addressed an EU summit in English:
Chirac, who said he was “deeply shocked”, left in disgust, taking his finance minister and foreign minister with him.
This is just the most recent indication of French disquiet at the way the EU, once basically a Franco-German club, has become less and less a sanctuary for French speakers. The last straw was the admission of ten new members last year, mostly from eastern Europe – countries whose own languages will never be universal currency, but whose common second language is almost always English. The French industrialist, Ernest-Antoine Seilliere, was only stating the obvious when he told Chirac “I’m going to speak in English because that is the language of business.”
But before dismissing Chirac (who, incidentally, studied in the US and speaks fluent English) as pretentious and out-of-touch, consider his argument.
On more serious matters, Chirac was in all sorts of trouble a few weeks later over his attempts to modernise French employment law:
The students and unionists who had demonstrated against the law were handed a complete victory on Monday when president Jacques Chirac announced that the law would be repealed. It was small consolation for the government that a victory march held by the students the following day was poorly attended.
Background to the dispute over the first employment contract (CPE), like most else in France today, is the presidential election to be held in just over a year’s time. Chirac, after two terms, will not run again (although he is yet to announce the fact), so the contest is wide open – for the nomination on both sides, as well as the verdict between them.
Front-runner on the centre-right is Nicolas Sarkozy, interior minister and party president of Chirac’s party, the UMP. His relationship with Chirac has been difficult at best ever since they fell out over an earlier presidential contest in 1995. Chirac instead has promoted Sarkozy’s rival, prime minister Dominique de Villepin. But the CPE was de Villepin’s pet project, and its failure has done major, possibly fatal, damage to his prospects. It seems that Chirac may be coming to the pragmatic conclusion that Sarkozy is the only one who can beat the left next year.
On Bastille Day in 2006 I returned to the theme:
This will be the last Bastille Day presided over by Jacques Chirac, loyal Gaullist and president since 1995. Presidential terms have been reduced from seven years to five (in an effort to align them with the national assembly), so his second term ends next year, and although Chirac is not prohibited from seeking a third term, it is universally expected that the standard-bearer for his Union for a Popular Movement (UMP) will be interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy.
Chirac and Sarkozy have not always been on good terms. Two years ago, Sarkozy deliberately announced his intention to run for UMP president on 12 July, stealing attention from Chirac’s Bastille Day address. Chirac responded by describing the relationship between them as “I decide, he executes”, and forcing Sarkozy to give up his ministerial post in order to take the party position.
But Sarkozy returned to the ministry in June last year, and since then Chirac seems to have reconciled himself to his rival’s growing ascendancy. And Sarkozy is trying to present the centre-right as a united front; as Le Monde reports, he is launching his new book (Témoignage, or “Testimony”) next Monday so as not to pre-empt Chirac’s day in the spotlight today. “I often speak with M Chirac”, he said. “There is no longer any tension between us.”
The following year, Chirac handed over to Sarkozy:
The departure of Chirac marks a real generational change in France.
Although on the same side politically, he and Sarkozy have had a difficult relationship over the years, but on this occasion they evidently preferred to remember the good times rather than the bad, and the warmth between them seemed genuine.
Chirac’s domestic record is not well regarded, and his approval ratings in the last two years have ranged from poor to abysmal. Originally seen as something of a radical, he drifted to the centre over time (it remains to be seen if Sarkozy will do the same). An economic reform program in his first term was defeated by public sector strikes, and a subsequent snap election backfired when the Socialists won control of parliament.
Internationally, assessments of Chirac are more polarised. The defining moment was the Iraq war, when he was alone among major centre-right leaders in opposing the US-led invasion. For supporters of the war, he represented the worst of French faint-heartedness and even treachery; for its opponents, he was the champion of international law and common sense.
But five years later, with Sarkozy seeking re-election, Chirac was able to enjoy some revenge:
Nor is Bayrou the only old foe coming back to haunt Sarkozy. Persistent reports claim that his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, and his entourage are covertly supporting Hollande. After 12 years in office, Chirac five years ago was deeply unpopular, but now he is apparently “polled as one of France’s best-loved political figures”.
Maybe five years out of office will do the same to Sarkozy’s reputation.
At this stage it certainly looks as if he’ll get the chance to find out.