R.I.P. Jacques Chirac. What is his political legacy?

How would you assess political legacy of President Jacques Chirac (1932 – 2019), what from what he had done still resonate (should resonate) in French, European politics? Read few comments.

Jacques Chirac (1932 – 2019)

Jean-Yves CamusDirector, Observatoire des radicalités politiques (ORAP), Associate Research Fellow, Institut de Relations Internationales et Stratégiques (IRIS)

President Chirac’s legacy will be that of a man who was deeply committed to building and strengthening Europe ( he supported the EU Constitutional Treaty), while being faithful to the Gaullist policy of national pride and independence from the two superpowers. This he showed by refusing to join the US-led coalition in Irak (2003). He was also an open-minded person who was well-versed in Russian history and literature as well as in Japanese culture. He had a passion for the arts of the Native People from all over the world and a museum dedicated to this passion bears his name in Paris. He was a pragmatic in foreign policy and during his second term, did much to make France well-respected in the Arab world (his decision not to send troops in Irak was a strong signal) as well as to give France a stronger voice in the EU, in order to balance the power of Germany.

In French domestic policy, he was seen as a conservative, but having attended the 5 December 1976 rally when he launched his party, Rassemblement pour la République, I can attest that he was faithful to the Gaullist doctrine of this strong State, social justice and concern for the well-being of the common man. He was a dedicated foe of any kind of extremism, refusing to debate with Le Pen between the two rounds of the 2002 Presidential election. Finally, he will be remembered for his landmark speech ( 16 July, 1995) on the responsibility of the French State in the deportation of the Jews. It should be remembered that until his speech, France had always refused to take any responsibility for the fate of the 76,000 Jews who were rounded up by French police and then handed over to the Nazis to die in the death camps.

Martin Michelot, Deputy Director, EUROPEUM Institute for European Policy

Well, Chirac is a modern paradox, in the way that people only sympathized with him, which explains the very positive image that people have of him, only way after the end of his two mandates, where he suffered at the end from historically low approval ratings (until Hollande broke the record). There is a real disconnect between the image that we have of Chirac on the day that he dies and the image that citizens had of him during his mandate. I think that is the first important thing.

In terms of what we will be remembered for:
– breaking with the US on invading Irak may be the biggest;
– recognizing the responsibility of the French state in the deportation of Jews during WW2 is the other major one;
– close to that you will have the end of the obligatory military service and his permanent fight against the extreme-right, where he refused any alliance between his party and FN in regional or municipal elections.

But he will also be remembered for lacking to deliver on any major social reforms, since he managed to put a lot of people in the street against retirement reform (topical today for Macron…), which led to the utter failure of the 1997 dissolution of the national assembly and 5 years of cohabitation with Socialists. In European terms, he was very gaullian and never diverged from the general idea of making Europe a bigger version of France; he took a gamble by putting up the EU Constitutional treaty up for a referendum, which he unfortunately lost (not just his fault, Socialists are almost more to blame), but it will remain a blemish in his EU track record.

Finally, the constitutional reform that brought the presidential term to five years and aligned presidential and legislative elections is perhaps the most significant marker, since it still today has a massive influence on the French political system.

John KeigerProfessor, Department of International Studies (POLIS), University of Cambridge

As for the political legacy of Jacques Chirac I would say it is an ambivalent one,fitting perhaps for a man of considerable contradictions. Chirac was in short a romanesque character. A man renowned for being close to the people but married in to one of the great aristocratic French families; a militant communist student at Sciences Po in Paris he transitioned to the Gaullist right in his political career though maintaining left-leaning views on social issues; nicknamed ‘mon bulldozer’ by President Pompidou for his energetic and pushy political persona, yet personally sensitive, warm and humanist, able to quote myriad Japanese haiku poems; a political leader who passionately decried Europe’s ‘bleeding’ of Africa for ‘four and a half centuries’ yet continued the old French tradition of FrancAfrique with all its underhand and corrupt links with the continent and unsavoury leaders; a ‘franchouillard’ politician caricatured with beret and baguette yet a great lover of the arts and the impassioned founder of France’s first museum for ‘primitive arts’ on Paris’s Quai Branly; initially a supporter of Algeria remaining French when he served there for his military service in 1956/7 but who transitioned to Gaullism shortly afterwards despite the General’s championing of Algerian independence; he favoured France reintegrating NATO at the beginning of his presidential mandate in 1995 but refused to support the United States in 2003 over the second Irak war; a leader internationally unpopular for restarting French nuclear testing in 1995 but who nine years later was internationally feted for standing up to the USA. Something of a Eurosceptic while prime minister under Valery Giscard d’Estaing he became a Europhile during his own presidency, but was unable to stop France voting aganst the European constitution in the 2005 bitter referendum. a member of France’s highest Constitutional Court yet in 2001 the first former President of the Republic to be condemned by the courts to a two year suspended sentence for improper financing of political parties when he was Mayor of Paris (1977-1995).

So a chequered and contradictory political career. Does it amount to anything by way of political legacy? I think not. There are no real Chiraquiens, as there are Gaullists, Giscardiens, Mitterrandistes, Sarkozystes. Yet paradoxically he is the French President who is and was the most affectionately popular of the 5th Republic.

Jonah LevyAssociate Professor, Vice-Chair of the Department of Political Science, University of California, Berkeley

Jacques Chirac was incredibly adept in the art of political struggle. A Gaullist, he betrayed the Gaullist candidate for president in 1974, enabling the centrist Valéry Giscard d’Estaing to win instead; Giscard immediately rewarded Chirac with the position of prime minister. Chirac is the only person under the Vth Republic to have served twice as prime minister, from 1974 to 1976 and from 1986 to 1988. He also served two terms as president, from 1995 to 2007. If all that weren’t enough, Chirac was mayor of Paris for 18 years, from 1977 to 1995. Paris served as both a fallback when Chirac lost national elections and a source of patronage that he used to transform the Gaullist party into a powerful political machine.

For all his political successes, Chirac leaves behind a remarkably meager legacy. Part of the problem was his ideological inconstance: he went from seeking to make the Gaullists into a catch-all Labor party à la française in the 1970s to embracing Thatcherism in the 1980s. He ran successfully for president in 1995 on a promise to heal France’s “social fracture” through intensified state intervention, then announced less than six months later that France needed to cut social spending in order to qualify for European Monetary Union (EMU). Chirac’s inconstance also applied to European integration: a fierce defender of national sovereignty against European encroachments in the 1970s, he supported the Maastricht treaty in a 1992 referendum and called another referendum, this time unsuccessful, to ratify a proposed European constitution in 2005. Chirac’s foreign policy was similarly inconstant: his first act as president in 1995 was to resume nuclear testing in the Pacific in defiance of a global moratorium, but he quickly ended the tests and became a forceful advocate of multilateralism and international cooperation. Chirac was certainly deserving of his nickname, “the weathervane.”

Chirac’s legacy is not without bright spots. Probably his most popular action as president was to oppose the US invasion of Iraq in 2002. Chirac and his team wanted to give the weapons inspectors more time and were dubious of the notion that the US could spread democracy and build nations at the point of a bayonet. Although Chirac could have expressed his concerns in more diplomatic terms and possibly side-stepped direct conflict with the Bush Administration, history has validated Chirac’s position on Iraq.

Chirac’s most statesman-like action was arguably coming to terms with one of the most sinister events in French history: the wartime Vichy regime’s complicity in the Final Solution. For decades after World War II, French leaders propounded the myth that Vichy merely sought to make the best of a difficult situation, that the French were all resisters at heart, and that evil actions were imposed by the Nazi occupiers. Chirac finally came clean publicly about France’s role: “The criminal folly of the occupant was seconded by some Frenchmen, by the French state.” He thus began the healing, not just for the Jewish community, but for France as well.


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