The last true Gaullist: how Jacques Chirac charmed France

The late president’s popularity across French society is in marked contrast to that of Emmanuel Macron, who is deemed to be an elitist. 

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The death of the former French president Jacques Chirac on 26 September has hardly shocked France. He was 86 and had been absent from public life for some time. Depending on your sources, he was allegedly suffering from Alzheimer’s or had suffered a series of strokes.

Yet it was a momentous occasion all the same, marked by lengthy tributes in the press from across the political spectrum. Perhaps the greatest sign of respect was President Emmanuel Macron’s televised address to the nation on the evening news. Speaking from his office in the Elysée Palace, and in the gravest voice he could muster, Macron declared Chirac to have been “a great Frenchman… whom we loved as much as he loved us”.

Macron even drew on the immortal words of Charles de Gaulle when he described Chirac, who was mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995 and then president from 1995 to 2007, as having “incarnated a certain idea of France”. He “resembled us and brought us together”, Macron said, praising Chirac’s common touch and seemingly effortless rapport with everyone from farmers and factory workers to captains of industry and royalty.

There was some truth to this. Even those on the left who hated Chirac’s politics applauded his “joviality” with members of the public. Chirac admired de Gaulle, and his own patriotism, opposition to “Anglo-Saxon” capitalism, and belief in France as a world force, made him arguably one of the last true Gaullists.

But unlike the austere and aloof general, Chirac presented himself as the incarnation of le français moyen (“the average Frenchman”). He drank beer and made much of the fact that his great-grandparents had been peasants in the rural south-western region of the Corrèze.

This was partly myth-making: Chirac was born into a well-heeled family in Paris. Although he spent his early years in the Corrrèze, and later served in the Algerian War (where he was wounded in combat), he was educated at a private school before studying at Harvard and then France’s elite training ground for its political classes, the École Nationale d’Administration. He may have begun his political career in the Corrèze, playing the peasant politician, but he ended his life as a Parisian thoroughbred.

This is why Macron’s eulogy was so unconvincing when praising Chirac as a man of the people. One of Macron’s domestic problems is that he is deemed to be an elitist. “Macron is like a snake,” I was told by Nadège Planchon, the patronne of a family restaurant on the Left Bank of Paris. Nadège insists on serving “proper” French food – boeuf bourguignon, blanquette de veau and the like; precisely the kind of food that Chirac always said he preferred. “Although I am of the left, I must admit I voted for Chirac,” she said, with a twinkle in her eye. “He was a charmer.”

Chirac was in fact a notorious drageur – seducer of women – a quality that has traditionally been seen as a badge of honour, rather than a moral failing, among male French politicians. One of Chirac’s most famous “flirtations”, which was rumoured to have been a full-blown affair, was with Sophie Dessus, the glamorous blonde deputy of the Corrèze who died in 2016 at the age of 60.

Chirac was devastated by her death – his widow, Bernadette, is a devout Catholic and was known for her long-suffering tolerance of Chirac’s improprieties. Indeed, it is a truism in France that the public is more tolerant of sex scandals; it is always money rather than sex that brings their officials down.

Charm is a quality Macron lacks and his recent efforts to soften his image have come across as artificial. Chirac was a much better actor. He cheered on the French World Cup-winning team of 1998 from the stands of the Stade de France, while admitting later on that he did not know much about football (Corrèze is rugby territory), nor the names of many of the players.

But Chirac changed French history. The most outstanding of his achievements was publicly admitting that France had been responsible for the deportation of Jews during the Second World War, most infamously at the Vel d’Hiv in Paris in 1942, when 13,000 Jews were detained in transit on their way to the Nazi death camps. This was the first time a French president had officially confronted the history of the Vichy regime, breaking a taboo that had been part of French political life since the 1940s.

Chirac was courageous too: his domestic approval ratings soared in 2003 when he defied the Americans and opposed the Iraq War, thereby – in the best Gaullist tradition – reasserting the French belief in their own national greatness and exceptionalism.

There were less popular policies, such as the time when, as mayor of Paris, he introduced the so-called motocrottes – motorbikes manned by riders whose mission was to seek and destroy the dog turds (crottes) of Paris: the project was abandoned in 2005, having cost some €4m and apparently only managed to remove 20 per cent of what the French delicately call canine dejections.

Chirac was also a chancer and a rogue, qualities that never really diminished his standing in the public eye. He was always suspected of cronyism, doing dodgy financial deals with his friends and handing out favours during his time as mayor.

As president he had immunity from prosecution, but in 2011 he was given a suspended prison sentence of two years for misuse of public funds and conflict of interest. His health problems kept him out of prison, while the public mostly turned a blind eye: this was just how peasant politics worked.

The cover of Le Parisien newspaper honoured Chirac with a front-page photograph and the headline “Tellement Français” – “truly and properly French”. The implication is that Jacques Chirac was the last of a generation of politicians whose truest values were, at the same time, local and national patriotism. It remains to be seen whether the same statement could ever be made of President Emmanuel Macron, whose vision of a liberal globalised France seems to be everything that Chirac opposed all his political life.

This article appears in the 02 October 2019 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit revolutionaries

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