Jacques Chirac: Charming French conservative

In 1942, 450 French police agents and gendarmes responded to the demands of the Nazi occupiers and arrested 13,000 Jews — men, women, and children — held them in terrible conditions at the Vel d'Hiv, the cycle track and sports stadium in Paris; sent them to a staging camp; and then deported them to Auschwitz.

In September 1994, President François Mitterand declared, "The Republic had nothing to do with the roundup of Jews.  I do not believe France is responsible." 

On July 16, 1995, the French president, Jacques Chirac, spoke at the commemoration of the event.  After decades of denials, such as that by Mitterand, and equivocations of the role played by French citizens and the French state in facilitating the Holocaust during World War II, for the first time, a French political leader spoke of the "dark hours" that forever soil French history.  It is necessary, Chirac said, to recognize the errors of the past and the errors committed by the state and not to hide them.  The criminal insanity of the occupiers was assisted by the French and by the French state.  France, the land of the Enlightenment and of human rights, a land of hospitality and asylum, on that day committed an irreparable action.  It delivered those who were under its protection to their executioners.

Chirac died on September 26, 2019 at age 86.  Though he was honored by a minute's silence in the French National Assembly, few consider him one of France's great presidents.  But his lifting in 1995 of the veil of official silence about the fate of Jews in France can be considered the hallmark of his career.  Chirac was a political seducer, a charmer known for his extramarital affairs (Mr. Three Minutes, shower included), a beer-drinking, cigarette-smoking man of the people whose endless handshaking with citizens required a bucket of ice at the end of day for his hand to recover.  He was a likable person who looked like a president, a good guy, "un bon gars." 

Tributes to him, the embodiment of moderate French conservatism, have been generous.  President Emmanuel Macron said Chirac "embodied" France; former prime minister Tony Blair said, "Whatever our differences from time to time, he was always unfailingly kind, generous and personally supportive."  Russian president Vladimir Putin called him a wise and farsighted statesman and praised him for his intellect and huge knowledge.  Chirac was one of the world leaders he most admired. 

One of the nicknames by which he was known was the "weathervane," in honor of his agility to shift policies when it was politically desirable.  This is true of his attitude to the E.U. as well as on free markets.  From being a skeptic of the E.U. in the 1970s, he became a supporter ten years later.

Chirac was a political animal who spent his whole life in public office.  Born in Paris to wealthy parents, he was educated at the Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA) and, for a short time, at summer school at Harvard.  During that time, he worked at Howard Johnson's in Boston.  In his early years, he was attracted to communism and pacifism.  He took part in the Algerian War, where he was wounded, the last president to have direct experience of combat.  He started political life as an adviser to prime minister Georges Pompidou, who called him "the bulldozer" because of his determination and ambition. 

Chirac became mayor of Paris (1977–1995), using the position as a platform for entrance into national politics, then became a member of Parliament, and then a government minister.  He founded a political party, the Gaullist Rally for the Republic; became prime minister twice; and finally became president in 1995, defeating socialist Lionel Jospin.  He was re-elected, wininng the second-round run-off against Jean-Marie le Pen with 82% of the vote.

Chirac's political record is at best mixed, with no clear or consistent political objectives.  His policies were adjustable, depending on the political climate.  One example of this was nuclear issues.  Chirac in 1995 resumed nuclear testing in French Polynesia in the South Pacific.  But a year later, he announced that France was ending nuclear testing and agreed to abide by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

His electoral promises were never fulfilled.  In internal issues he avoided confrontation, often giving way to protests.  He called for social unity, for reduced unemployment and inequalities.  But attempts at change, his pension reform and austerity package, led to strikes.  France was riddled with debt and unemployment, and Chirac failed to change the French economy or defuse tensions between police and minority youths in the urban riots in housing estates, the banlieues, in 2005. 

His decision to call parliamentary elections in 1997 was a political miscalculation, since it led to a left-wing government, with which as president he was forced to share power.  He also failed to convince the electorate to approve the proposed EU constitution. He left France as divided as when he started. Chirac was particularly offensive in his speech of June 19, 1991 in Orleans when he was critical of immigrants, who live in council houses, and spoke of French people being disturbed, among other things, by their "noise and smell," le bruit et l'odeur. The French worker, he said without being a racist, is bound to become mad about them. 

To his credit, Chirac did improve road safety, ended compulsory military service, and reduced the term of president from seven to five years.

Chirac's most prominent international moment for which he is most remembered is his opposition to the war in Iraq. He was the leading figure in the opposition to President George W. Bush and PM Tony Blair who were deploying forces to remove Saddam Hussein. Chirac refused to join the invasion without a UN mandate, arguing that military action must be approved by the UN Security Council. Chirac led the alliance of France, Germany, and Russia against the war involving the U.S. and UK. His action soured relations with the two countries. However, a new surprising comment of September 28, 2019 by Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6, was that there were "strong indications," that Chirac received £5 million to oppose the war. Dearlove indicated there was "a long relationship between Chirac and Saddam, which was "personal."

Chirac was said to be a connoisseur of Japanese ceramics, and appreciative of Chinse poetry. In his regard he left a monument. He opened in 2006 the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum to display art from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. It contains about 1.2 million objects. For Chirac, it is dedicated to people who have "too often suffered violence at the hands of history throughout the ages."

His career ended sadly when he was convicted for using city funds while mayor of Paris for his political party RPR. He was found guilty and given a suspended sentence of two years. Cynics remarked this was the first time he had a conviction. 

Yet the legacy of Chirac is clear. He never did heal the social fracture in France, nor introduce any significant change but one. As shown by a ceremony of the Shoah memorial in Paris. because of what Jacques Chirac said about French participation in the Holocaust, Jews of France were reconciled with their country. 

Photo credit: Wilson Dias/ABr.

In 1942, 450 French police agents and gendarmes responded to the demands of the Nazi occupiers and arrested 13,000 Jews — men, women, and children — held them in terrible conditions at the Vel d'Hiv, the cycle track and sports stadium in Paris; sent them to a staging camp; and then deported them to Auschwitz.

In September 1994, President François Mitterand declared, "The Republic had nothing to do with the roundup of Jews.  I do not believe France is responsible." 

On July 16, 1995, the French president, Jacques Chirac, spoke at the commemoration of the event.  After decades of denials, such as that by Mitterand, and equivocations of the role played by French citizens and the French state in facilitating the Holocaust during World War II, for the first time, a French political leader spoke of the "dark hours" that forever soil French history.  It is necessary, Chirac said, to recognize the errors of the past and the errors committed by the state and not to hide them.  The criminal insanity of the occupiers was assisted by the French and by the French state.  France, the land of the Enlightenment and of human rights, a land of hospitality and asylum, on that day committed an irreparable action.  It delivered those who were under its protection to their executioners.

Chirac died on September 26, 2019 at age 86.  Though he was honored by a minute's silence in the French National Assembly, few consider him one of France's great presidents.  But his lifting in 1995 of the veil of official silence about the fate of Jews in France can be considered the hallmark of his career.  Chirac was a political seducer, a charmer known for his extramarital affairs (Mr. Three Minutes, shower included), a beer-drinking, cigarette-smoking man of the people whose endless handshaking with citizens required a bucket of ice at the end of day for his hand to recover.  He was a likable person who looked like a president, a good guy, "un bon gars." 

Tributes to him, the embodiment of moderate French conservatism, have been generous.  President Emmanuel Macron said Chirac "embodied" France; former prime minister Tony Blair said, "Whatever our differences from time to time, he was always unfailingly kind, generous and personally supportive."  Russian president Vladimir Putin called him a wise and farsighted statesman and praised him for his intellect and huge knowledge.  Chirac was one of the world leaders he most admired. 

One of the nicknames by which he was known was the "weathervane," in honor of his agility to shift policies when it was politically desirable.  This is true of his attitude to the E.U. as well as on free markets.  From being a skeptic of the E.U. in the 1970s, he became a supporter ten years later.

Chirac was a political animal who spent his whole life in public office.  Born in Paris to wealthy parents, he was educated at the Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA) and, for a short time, at summer school at Harvard.  During that time, he worked at Howard Johnson's in Boston.  In his early years, he was attracted to communism and pacifism.  He took part in the Algerian War, where he was wounded, the last president to have direct experience of combat.  He started political life as an adviser to prime minister Georges Pompidou, who called him "the bulldozer" because of his determination and ambition. 

Chirac became mayor of Paris (1977–1995), using the position as a platform for entrance into national politics, then became a member of Parliament, and then a government minister.  He founded a political party, the Gaullist Rally for the Republic; became prime minister twice; and finally became president in 1995, defeating socialist Lionel Jospin.  He was re-elected, wininng the second-round run-off against Jean-Marie le Pen with 82% of the vote.

Chirac's political record is at best mixed, with no clear or consistent political objectives.  His policies were adjustable, depending on the political climate.  One example of this was nuclear issues.  Chirac in 1995 resumed nuclear testing in French Polynesia in the South Pacific.  But a year later, he announced that France was ending nuclear testing and agreed to abide by the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

His electoral promises were never fulfilled.  In internal issues he avoided confrontation, often giving way to protests.  He called for social unity, for reduced unemployment and inequalities.  But attempts at change, his pension reform and austerity package, led to strikes.  France was riddled with debt and unemployment, and Chirac failed to change the French economy or defuse tensions between police and minority youths in the urban riots in housing estates, the banlieues, in 2005. 

His decision to call parliamentary elections in 1997 was a political miscalculation, since it led to a left-wing government, with which as president he was forced to share power.  He also failed to convince the electorate to approve the proposed EU constitution. He left France as divided as when he started. Chirac was particularly offensive in his speech of June 19, 1991 in Orleans when he was critical of immigrants, who live in council houses, and spoke of French people being disturbed, among other things, by their "noise and smell," le bruit et l'odeur. The French worker, he said without being a racist, is bound to become mad about them. 

To his credit, Chirac did improve road safety, ended compulsory military service, and reduced the term of president from seven to five years.

Chirac's most prominent international moment for which he is most remembered is his opposition to the war in Iraq. He was the leading figure in the opposition to President George W. Bush and PM Tony Blair who were deploying forces to remove Saddam Hussein. Chirac refused to join the invasion without a UN mandate, arguing that military action must be approved by the UN Security Council. Chirac led the alliance of France, Germany, and Russia against the war involving the U.S. and UK. His action soured relations with the two countries. However, a new surprising comment of September 28, 2019 by Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6, was that there were "strong indications," that Chirac received £5 million to oppose the war. Dearlove indicated there was "a long relationship between Chirac and Saddam, which was "personal."

Chirac was said to be a connoisseur of Japanese ceramics, and appreciative of Chinse poetry. In his regard he left a monument. He opened in 2006 the Quai Branly-Jacques Chirac Museum to display art from Africa, Asia, Oceania, and the Americas. It contains about 1.2 million objects. For Chirac, it is dedicated to people who have "too often suffered violence at the hands of history throughout the ages."

His career ended sadly when he was convicted for using city funds while mayor of Paris for his political party RPR. He was found guilty and given a suspended sentence of two years. Cynics remarked this was the first time he had a conviction. 

Yet the legacy of Chirac is clear. He never did heal the social fracture in France, nor introduce any significant change but one. As shown by a ceremony of the Shoah memorial in Paris. because of what Jacques Chirac said about French participation in the Holocaust, Jews of France were reconciled with their country. 

Photo credit: Wilson Dias/ABr.