In Chirac's death, France mourns a major part of its history
Issued on: Modified:
The death of the charismatic French leader last week has triggered emotional tributes and nostalgia about a certain idea of France. But it has also sparked questions about Jacques Chirac's popularity – despite a conviction and being out of the limelight for more than a decade.
For 30 percent of the French population, Jacques Chirac was as popular as former president Charles De Gaulle, according to a recent poll.
His popularity was proven yet again by the long lines of people who have gathered since Sunday to pay their respects to a man admired for his down-to-earth approach.
"The passage of time has allowed nostalgia to develop for Chirac, the man," comments Jim Shields, a professor of French politics at Warwick University.
The outpouring of popular support contrasts with the "divisive figure" Chirac cut for himself when he was in office from 1995 to 2007.
"As a president, he set new records for unpopularity and perceived dishonesty and when he left office the French were glad to get rid of him," Shields told RFI.
U-turns and corruption
Unions nearly swept him away in his first year, when they brought the country to its knees over anger at Chirac's economic austerity plans. The government then had to make an embarrassing U-turn.
In his later years, he was dogged by allegations of corruption and kickbacks during his time as Paris mayor, and given a two-year suspended sentence. Yet none of this appears to have blighted his image.
His popularity has risen as that of his successors – Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron – has fallen, explains Shields."The failures of those three presidents have shone a more benign light on the Chirac era," he says.
End of an era
Chirac was born in 1932, and grew up as an adolescent during the Second World War.
As a junior minister, he won renown for negotiating with striking workers in May 1968, then had a forty-year political career across a period crucial to making France what it is today.
"Chirac’s passing marks the end of an era," says Shields. “The French are mourning the loss of a major part of France’s modern history – Chirac embodied that modern history."
Chirac was more perhaps more remembered for his achievements on the world stage than at home, notably his defiant stand against the US-led war in Iraq, and warning of the risk of climate change before it rose high on the political agenda.
"It’s a paradoxical legacy," continues Shields, "because he was a persuasive, convincing, effective French leader – much of the time on the world stage – whereas at home his record is very scant."
Some experts argue that Chirac was more interested in fighting for power than in actually wielding it.
He showed "acute political skills in seeing off his rivals and consolidating his party machine to get to the Elysée palace after 20 years of nurturing his presidential ambitions at Paris' mayoral office," continues Shields, who lived in France during the 1970s when Chirac was sparring with former President Valérie Giscard d'Estaing.
"But in terms of domestic reforms, we come out of the Chirac era disappointed. Whereas, on the world stage, he struck friendships with other world leaders," he says.
Current and past world leaders attended Chirac's funeral service on Monday, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and Lebanon's Prime Minister Saad Hariri. So did nearly all of France's political class, including the two men who led France between Chirac and Emmanuel Macron, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande.
"They were there partly to honour a head of state, but also partly to say goodbye to an old friend,” adds Shields.
"Chirac, The African"
Chirac's choice of friends, many of whom included controversial African leaders such as Congo's Denis Sassou-Nguesso and Equatorial Guinea's Teodoro Obiang Nguema, who were at Monday's ceremony, has raised eyebrows.
Often referred to as "Chirac, the African", the former French president had close ties with many African leaders and travelled frequently to the continent.
"It is not a paradox that he had controversial links with a certain number of presidents," argues Emmanuel Dupuy, president of the Institute for European Perspective & Security studies in Paris, although many human rights groups would beg to differ.
"Jacques Chirac had a very long time to liaise with the African leadership. He is linked to the French paradox of the last 70 years and our complex relationship with our former colonies," Dupuy told RFI.
Chirac hosted the most number of Franco-African summits: six in total, compared to Sarkozy's only one and Hollande's two.
Despite his proximity with Africa, he is also remembered for saying the continent wasn’t ready for democracy.
For Shields, this "was taken as a signal from strong-man dictators that they could delay the development of democracy and human rights on the continent".
Dupuy says Chirac's words were misunderstood.
"We should not put him on trial. He was the first president to engage French forces in Africa after the end of the Algerian war, notably in Chad in 2005, after an earlier military operation launched in 1984," he says.
And he would do so again years later, intervening in the Democratic Republic of Congo and Congo-Brazzaville.
"Some of the presidents who attended his funeral had a very personal link with the president, a sort of paternity link, which is the case of the president of Congo-Brazzaville, Denis Sassou-Nguesso, who used to call him his father," Dupuy recalls.
Yet, Chirac's name was also associated with Françafrique – the network of interests that France left behind in Africa when it pulled out as a colonial power –and he admitted in later years receiving petrol money from Gabon to fund his 2002 campaign.
For Shields, Chirac's relations, carved out on a basis of warmth, had much to do with pragmatism and putting the interests of France first.
Combat to continue
"The overriding arguments for Chirac was that presidents have to engage with the world as it is and not as they would like it to be," he said.
Asked whether Chirac's death would alter the state of play in France, Shields was sceptical.
"I see this as a brief pause to honour a former political combatant but not as a moment that will alter the nature of today’s political combat at all.”
Daily newsletterReceive essential international news every morningSubscribe