Chirac: Political chameleon who charmed France

By Hugh Schofield
BBC News, Paris

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionChirac was once voted the man most French people would like to have dinner with

Anyone who lived in France around the turn of the century will remember the special persona, a kind of avuncular clan elder, adopted by Jacques Chirac for his presidential broadcasts.

With an air of almost pained sincerity, he would furrow his brow at the latest negative turn of events. Then in rich, reassuring tones came the unvarying intro: "Mes chers compatriotes…" (My dear compatriots).

How many people fell for his Gallic charm, one will never know.

Plenty of French men and women regarded Jacques Chirac as one of the biggest political charlatans of all time. Not a bad man, they said. Not even, for all the Paris city hall scandals, particularly corrupt.

No, for his critics the president was something else, but worse. He was a man who was bereft of beliefs, but who played the political game to perfection and numbed his nation through the start of a long decline.

But even if we accept the version of Jacques Chirac as a kind of empty-headed hypnotherapist, sleep-walking his country into second-tier status, we still need to explain how he got away with it.

Leader who reflected France

Why did his patients, France's voters - his "chers compatriotes" - keep coming back for more?

The answer is that the French always had a soft spot for someone who reflected back upon them much of their own self-perception.

Here was a man rooted in the countryside, but who adopted with ease the social superiority of the Parisian.

His family were secular Republicans, but he married into the Catholic upper strata.

The French may have abandoned religion, but they are conservatives at heart and the Church is bound up in their self-image.

He was friendly to the United States - he spent time there as a young man - but never lost the instinctive French suspicion of "les Anglo-Saxons". The highpoint of his presidencies was when he refused to kowtow to Washington over the Iraq war.

On a baser note, he drank hefty amounts of beer, ate like a true gourmand, and was in true French style faithfully unfaithful to his wife Bernadette. He later had the nickname "Mr Three Minutes - shower included".

At the latter end of his second term, with his opinion polls floundering, he was even voted the man most French people would like to have dinner with.

image copyrightGetty Images
image captionHe was married to Bernadette Chirac for 60 years

Jacques Chirac was old enough to remember World War Two and he came of age at the start of France's long period of post-war growth.

He saw service in Algeria, studied at the elite Ecole Nationale d'Administration when ENA was still seen as a dynamic agent of change, and entered government in the technological-industrial-scientific heyday of the late 1960s.

In other words Chirac came from a time when France radiated self-confidence and economic power.

A political operator without loyalty

As early as 1976, when he had already served his first term as prime minister, Chirac was being caricatured in the latest Asterix album as the archetypal technocratic high-achiever.

Anyone who appears in an Asterix album has clearly touched some affectionate nerve among the French.

With Chirac, it was his personal association with a time (under presidents Charles De Gaulle and Georges Pompidou) of energy, modernity and growth.

Later, the political operator emerged.

Chirac had no loyalties.

He was never really Charles De Gaulle's man, though he claimed the legacy.

He betrayed Valery Giscard d'Estaing in 1981, and preferred political flirtation with the Socialist Francois Mitterand.

His politics were all over the place.

As a youth he sold Communist party tracts, and when he founded the Gaullist RPR in 1976 it had a distinctly pro-labour feel.

In the 1980s he was a free marketeer, before switching back again and campaigning in the 1995 presidential election on a promise to end the "social fracture".

Just as inconsistent were his views on Europe.

Originally hostile to Giscard d'Estaing's euro-federalism, he gradually abandoned the nation-staters and by 2005 was urging a new EU constitution. The people were asked to vote on it, but said no.

The lack of principle became the stuff of jokes.

Chirac was Chameleon Bonaparte. When in 2011, after leaving office, he was finally condemned for vote-rigging in his long tenure as mayor of Paris, it was joked (abroad - because it does not work in French) that at least now he had one conviction.

But maybe it was also this absence of firm ideological ground that created his appeal to the French.

image copyrightAFP
image captionChirac was elected mayor of Paris in 1977 and held the position until 1995

France is a country that over two centuries has been riven over and again by revolution, civil disorder and ideological dissension. Today, more than ever, there are people who would with little pushing take up the cudgel.

Chirac's presidential broadcasts were infuriating because behind the earnest frowns and the dark brown tones, there was never the remotest substance.

However this instinct to consensus that made him so ineffectual was also Chirac's political touchstone.

He may have zigzagged from right to left, totally failed to address the country's economic decline, and botched every meaningful reform. But you couldn't ever dislike the man. He was very French.

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