Perhaps best known for opposing the Iraq war and calling a 2005 referendum on a European constitution which he then lost, French President Jacques Chirac was also found guilty of corruption after leaving office.
Towards the end he rarely appeared in public. The man who was known by both opponents and supporters alike as “the bulldozer” was hit hard by a stroke — both physically and psychologically. His wife Bernadette, who had been his faithful companion since they were students, would from time to time inform the French of new developments from their luxury apartment on the left bank of the Seine.
Jacques Chirac was in the political spotlight for more than 40 years. His career began in 1962 after graduating from the two prestigious institutions: the Paris Institute of Political Studies and the Ecole nationale d’administration (ENA). He was appointed as a staff member in the government of Prime Minister Georges Pompidou. A few years later, under Pompidou’s guidance, Chirac took on his first ministerial position. Later, under President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, he became prime minister for two years.
At the age of 49, the ambitious conservative made his first attempt to win the highest office in the land — and failed. In 1981 and 1988 he was forced to concede defeat to the socialist Francois Mitterrand.
President on his third attempt
Chirac, who was born in Paris on November 29, 1932, found his political homeland in the rural area of Correze, where he could enjoy his love of beer and hearty meals. He was able to serve as a deputy of the National Assembly from here for several years. Yet his power base was in the capital where he had studied and where he founded the Gaullist movement, “Rassemblement pour la Republique” (RPR) in the 1970s. It was also where he was elected mayor in 1977.
In Paris, Chirac rose to power — and in Paris he lost popularity. In the run-up to the election Chirac had announced that he would heal the “division in French society.” Yet his arrival in the Elysee Palace in 1995 saw the people turn against him. His government’s plans for extensive social reform led to heavy social conflict. And, as happened many times during his presidency, Chirac backtracked on his policies.
But it was at the end of his political career that he suffered the greatest humiliation. In 2011, after losing the immunity he had held as president, a Parisian court convicted him of “diverting public funds, abuse of trust and illegal conflict of interest.” Chirac was given a two-year suspended sentence. This was the first criminal proceeding against a former president in the history of the Republic and was a legal score settling of Chirac’s 18 years as mayor of Paris.
Capturing the spirit of the people
Chirac had more success in foreign relations than in domestic politics, despite the fact that difficulties in foreign policy marked the beginning of his time in office: neighboring countries, including many allies, were protesting against the resumption of nuclear testing near the South Pacific atoll, Mururoa. Chancellor Helmut Kohl resented the fact that the new French president had not consulted his German partner before announcing that the testing would go ahead.
Kohl’s successor, Gerhard Schröder, also distanced himself at first from the neo-Gaullist. They later joined forces, however, standing up to US President George W. Bush and working closely together to lead the anti-Iraq war movement. By 2003 Chirac had reached the peak of his popularity, not long after electoral victory. He attributed that win to right-wing extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen, who had made it to the second round run-off against Chirac in 2002, as his daughter Marine would 15 years later.
But even during his second term in office, Chirac lost his otherwise strong political instinct at times. Although not required under the French constitution, pro-European Chirac was so sure of victory that he ordered a referendum on whether France should ratify the European constitution. In May 2005 the supporters of this project suffered a resounding defeat. It would have been appropriate for the president to step down, yet Chirac stayed and saw out the final two years in office — in which there was widespread civil unrest in the suburbs — without the energy to politically move on and start afresh.
In 2007 the French view of the former president changed again when his successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, moved into the Elysée Palace. Irritated by Sarkozy, who was perceived as hyperactive and money-obsessed, many longed to have back the sensitive lover of far Eastern art who had grown in people’s hearts with his common touch and jovial temperament.
After 12 years as president, Chirac left the people of France with a mountain of unfinished social reforms, but he also set the course for the country in several key ways by abolishing compulsory military service and establishing a powerful operational army. He also introduced a ban on wearing headscarves in public schools and universities.
Correcting the official history books also earned the conservative leader widespread recognition both in France and abroad: as head of state, Chirac openly admitted to the French involvement in rounding up and murdering Jews during the Nazi occupation. And it is this historical legacy — above all — that has outlasted his presidency and will remain an important achievement of his time in office