Jacques Chirac, the Quintessentially French Man of the World

Former French President Jacques Chirac has died at 86. Chirac was in some ways the epitome of a French politician, having held every major position you can think of in that country; veteran of the War in Algeria, Secretary of State under the legendary Charles de Gaulle, Prime Minister, longtime mayor of Paris, and ultimately President for two terms (I imagine he’ll be digitally inserted into future editions of Casablanca as a French resistance fighter for good measure).

Chirac’s domestic legacy is a decidedly mixed bag. He ran unsuccessfully for president twice before being elected in 1995. He failed in a number of key initiatives, such as education reform during his time as Prime Minister and labor reform during his presidency (student protests tended to force him to retreat from these conservative initiatives).  He also faced corruption charges that followed him out of office, escaping significant punishment due to his age and declining health. Yet, he remains a key figure in French history, and in light of the current issues facing the world – development, democratization and enduring colonial legacies within Africa; the rise of the extreme right in the West; Brexit; and the prospects of new US warfare in the Middle East – his legacy is surprisingly relevant today.

Chirac was a conservative; his main political rivals were Socialists such as French President Mitterrand, who gave Chirac those two presidential election defeats but eventually appointed Chirac as Prime Minister after their second electoral clash.  Chirac’s conservatism did not make him a friend of the far-right; he vigorously opposed people like Jean-Marie Le Pen (founder of the National Front, which has now been inherited and rebranded by his daughter, Marine) who forced a run-off but lost to Chirac in the 2002 presidential election.

Chirac’s legacy is largely defined by his foreign policy, and for the friends and enemies he gathered along the way.  I only learned today that Chirac was nicknamed “the African” for his love of the continent’s culture and art.  Like other French presidents, he maintained close ties with a number of French-speaking African countries and used these connections to bolster France’s role as a lingering world power.  His African policies were sometimes helpful and at other times quite heavy-handed. An example:  when a civil war broke out in the West African country of Cote d’Ivoire, Chirac sent French troops to support a UN peacekeeping effort. But when Ivorian fighter planes bombed French positions and killed several French peacekeepers – by accident, according to the Ivorian government – Chirac retaliated by destroying the country’s entire air force (I’m not sure what the French term for “flex” is, but I imagine it was used to describe this move).

Closer to home, Chirac was critical of the UK for not paying its fair share within the European Union. Here, the echoes of Donald Trump are coincidental; France wasn’t being cheap when it came to the EU or attempting to undermine the organization. On the contrary, Chirac engaged in economic policies that, in the short run at least, hurt the French economy in order to help prop up the European Union and members such as Germany.  For Chirac, France and Germany were the core of the European Union (remember that the Union started as an economic arrangement, largely between these two countries, in order to promote unity and, more pressingly, prevent a third world war), and a strong EU was in turn a mechanism for maintaining France’s influence around the world.  Long before ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ became important political labels, Britain had been ambivalent about the Europe project, and Chirac was in turn critical of the UK’s lack of commitment.  Chirac was unable to translate his own enthusiasm for the EU into popular French support; in echoes of Brexit, Chirac called for a 2005 referendum on the then-proposed EU constitution, only to be surprised when the tide of public opinion turned against the new law and French voters rejected it, forcing the EU members to renegotiate a series of new agreements to update the Union.

But Chirac is best remembered in the United States, and perhaps around the world, for his opposition to the 2003 Iraq War.  Chirac had developed a personal relationship with Saddam Hussein (and many other leaders ranging from Muammar Gaddafi to Deng Xiaoping) during his time as French Prime Minister, and he maintained the belief that negotiations and a regime of inspections could resolve the Iraq crisis.  Under Chirac’s leadership, France opposed military action against Iraq in the UN, to the consternation of George W. Bush.  This position earned him applause in Europe, where sentiment against the war prevailed, especially in countries like Germany.  But it again put France and Britain on opposite sides of an important international issue, and the opposing opinions about Iraq and the European Union solidified a tense relationship between Chirac and British Prime Minister Tony Blair (Blair claims the two later developed a friendship).  Chirac’s stance against the Iraq War earned France significant scorn, both serious and sardonic, in the United States (we all remember Freedom Fries, right?) and in Britain (the tabloid The Sun, in a display of reasoned disagreement and subtle wit, called Chirac “Saddam Hussein’s whore.” As the War in Iraq turned into more of a debacle, and approval for the effort and for Bush and Blair declined in the US and UK, Chirac’s defiance became remembered more fondly and anti-French sentiment faded (on this issue, anyway).

Those looking to define Jacques Chirac’s legacy in either positive or negative terms can find ample evidence to support their causes; the man who apologized for occupied France’s role in assisting the Nazi’s in the Holocaust was the same leader who fought with environmental activists such as Greenpeace over resumed French nuclear tests. Despite his political and professional failings, Jacques Chirac paid significant attention to Africa (admittedly, not always good attention), stood up against the far right, championed the EU, and vocally opposed an ill-advised US war in the Middle East. He’ll be remembered as a divisive and flawed figure, but one whose ideas still resonate in the world today. And, I imagine, history will look back on him as a French statesman and patriot, who did his best (even when that best was not quite good enough) to promote his country’s place in the world.

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