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Jacques Chirac, ex-French president who challenged US, dies at 86

As president of France from 1995 to 2007, Chirac sought more clout for his country and for the European Union, advocating a "multipolar" world to balance US and "Anglo-Saxon" dominance

Bloomberg  |  Paris 

French president Jacques Chirac
French president Jacques Chirac

Jacques Chirac, the French president who led his country into Europe’s common currency and spearheaded opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq, died on Thursday. He was 86.

As president of from 1995 to 2007, Chirac sought more clout for his country and for the European Union, advocating a “multipolar” world to balance US and “Anglo-Saxon” dominance. The president, who first entered government under Charles de Gaulle in the 1960s, forged, like his mentor, a reputation for defiance, first toward his own bosses and later toward the US.

“His memory will stay in the history of as it will in the hearts of all our compatriots,” Nicolas Sarkozy, his successor as president, said in a tweet. “A part of my life has disappeared today.”

Chirac led opposition at the United Nations to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, an operation that ultimately revealed the country had no weapons of mass destruction. He was the first French president to recognize the responsibility of the state in the deportation of Jews during World War II. He also coined a phrase that has become a landmark of France’s climate policies since: “our house is burning down and we’re blind to it,” he said in a speech in 2002.

After leaving office, Chirac was pursued by allegations of corruption from his years as mayor of Paris, becoming France’s first former head of state to stand trial and be convicted since World War II. The ex-president, who didn’t attend the 2011 trial due to illness, was found guilty of misusing city funds to benefit his supporters and political party. He received a suspended prison sentence and didn’t appeal.

The Bulldozer

Dubbed “the bulldozer” by his colleagues as a junior minister in the 1960s, Chirac angrily demonstrated his talent for rebellion when he broke with then-President Valery Giscard d’Estaing in 1976 and quit as prime minister. The following year, he trounced Giscard d’Estaing’s own candidate in the race to be Paris’s first elected mayor, a position he held for 18 years along with other posts.

Finally entering the presidential Elysee Palace, Chirac fought to develop EU military capabilities to act independently from the US-led North Atlantic Treaty Organization.

A proponent of the French “cultural exception,” Chirac said on a trip in Vietnam in 2004 that the increased and unfettered use of the English language throughout the world would lead to a “global subculture.”

‘Honey Pie’

Paradoxically, one of the early foreign passions of Chirac, who was later to take an interest in Russian literature, Asian art and Japanese Sumo wrestling, was the U.S. In interviews, he recalled that his first fiancee was a Southern belle in the U.S. who called him “honey pie” and drove a pink convertible. He also wrote a thesis on the development of the New Orleans harbor.

Chirac was born in Paris on Nov. 29, 1932, to Francois Chirac, a company director, and Marie-Louise Valette. He was educated in the French capital’s best high schools, including Louis Le Grand.

He went on to work briefly as a seaman on a cargo ship, to fight as an officer in the French army during Algeria’s independence war, and even to wash dishes at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant during a summer course at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

Howard Johnson himself, Chirac told Paris-based foreign reporters at a press luncheon in the late 1980s, came across him working in the restaurant and wrote him a reference describing the future French president as “an excellent soda jerk.”

Political Beginnings

Back in Paris, Chirac studied political science at the Institute of Political Studies, where he met Bernadette Chodron de Courcel. He married her in 1956. He graduated from the National School of Administration, France’s elite school for civil servants, in 1959. He then worked as an auditor for the state before entering government as an aide to Prime Minister Georges Pompidou during de Gaulle’s presidency.

Chirac was elected lawmaker in Correze, in a rural constituency of central France, in 1967. That same year, he was appointed junior employment minister. In that position, Chirac created the network of job agencies for the unemployed that exists to this day.

During the May 1968 strikes and student riots that shook the state and led to de Gaulle’s departure the next year, Chirac helped negotiate a 35% minimum-wage increase. He packed a pistol at one meeting with labor union leaders as a precaution, according to biographer Franz-Olivier Giesbert.

Agriculture Minister

He held various ministerial positions, including at agriculture and interior, when Pompidou succeeded de Gaulle as president in 1969. After his tenure as agriculture minister, Chirac remained a relentless advocate of EU subsidies for farmers, who helped him win several elections.

In the 1974 presidential vote, which followed Pompidou’s death in office, Chirac turned his back on Gaullist leader Jacques Chaban-Delmas, a World War II Resistance hero, to campaign for Giscard d’Estaing. The new president rewarded Chirac by appointing him prime minister, though that alliance was short-lived.

Faced with soaring unemployment and inflation in the wake of the first 1973 oil shock, Chirac resigned in 1976, citing disagreements with Giscard d’Estaing.

The following year, Chirac ensured that he wouldn’t be a political bystander by announcing his candidacy for the new post of mayor of Paris -- a job that Giscard d’Estaing had earmarked for a friend and political ally.

Paris Mayor

Chirac easily won Paris, going on to secure all the capital’s 20 arrondissements, or districts, in later elections. As mayor of the capital, he made sure that foreign leaders visiting included a reception at city hall in their program to build its profile.

He grouped Gaullist politicians into a new party, Rally for the Republic, known by its French initials of RPR, and challenged Giscard d’Estaing in the presidential elections in 1981. He placed third in the first round and then gave only grudging support to Giscard d’Estaing in the runoff vote, which was won by Socialist Francois Mitterrand.

It was Mitterrand, his most constant rival, who was to give Chirac a second crack at the prime minister’s job. The RPR won parliamentary elections in 1986, obliging Mitterrand to appoint the party boss head of government in a tense “cohabitation,” or power-sharing arrangement between rival parties.

In his two years as premier, Chirac conducted a mostly free-market policy. He sold off state-owned companies such as Societe Generale SA and Cie. de Saint-Gobain SA, undoing the nationalizations that had been the hallmark of Mitterrand’s early years.

Chirac failed at his second attempt to become president in 1988, losing in the runoff round with 46% of the votes to Mitterrand’s 54%.

Finally President

Chirac made it to the Elysee Palace on his third attempt in 1995, when Mitterrand retired, on a platform of tax cuts and a pledge to fight social inequalities. He beat Socialist leader Lionel Jospin and Edouard Balladur, a fellow Gaullist who had served as prime minister under Mitterrand in France’s second cohabitation from 1993.

One of Chirac’s first moves as president was to reverse de Gaulle’s stance that the Vichy wartime collaborationist government had little popular support and that French officials had little to do with wartime deportations of Jews. At a July 1995 speech commemorating a 1942 roundup of 13,000 Parisian Jews, Chirac said “the criminal folly of the occupier was assisted by Frenchmen, and by the French state.”

Sarajevo Fighting

He also moved quickly to persuade U.K. Prime Minister John Major to mount joint air raids against Serbian artillery batteries that were pounding the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo. In November 1995, Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic signed the Dayton, Ohio, accords that ended more than three years of war in Bosnia.

In his early months in office, Chirac angered leaders of countries in the Pacific including Japan, Australia and New Zealand when he resumed underground nuclear weapons tests in French Pacific territories to maintain and update the country’s independent nuclear arsenal.

Later, Chirac was instrumental in convincing U.S. President Bill Clinton to lead the 1999 NATO intervention in the mainly ethnic Albanian province of Kosovo in Serbia. It was eventually conducted without UN approval.

In Iraq, though, where French aircraft had flown alongside the U.S. and U.K. to enforce the “no-fly zones” set up after the 1991 Gulf War, Chirac withdrew his air force after Clinton ordered bombing raids on Iraq in 1998.

Bombing Afghanistan

In 2001, just after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon, an already scheduled visit to the U.S. enabled Chirac to become the first head of state to tour New York and publicly express his nation’s sympathy and support to President George W. Bush.

The following month, French aircraft were over Afghanistan as U.S.-led forces attacked to back rebels fighting to dislodge the Islamic Taliban regime, which was sheltering the al-Qaeda terrorist network of Osama bin Laden that was responsible for the Sept. 11 attacks.

At home, Chirac’s popularity plummeted when Prime Minister Alain Juppe reneged on the campaign pledge to cut taxes so as to meet deficit criteria required to qualify France for the single European currency, the euro. The president’s decision to phase out the draft and professionalize the French military wasn’t enough to bolster his support.

Transport Strikes

Public transport strikes brought the country to a near standstill for three weeks in December 1995 when Juppe tried to overhaul the pension and health-care system. That, combined with rising unemployment, contributed to the rout of Chirac’s party in a snap parliamentary election he called in 1997.

As a result, Chirac had to abandon legislative power to the Socialists for five years and to appoint their leader, Jospin, prime minister in a third cohabitation. That limited Chirac to mostly overseeing foreign and defense policy while Jospin ran the economy.

The end of Chirac’s first mandate was marred by the allegations of corruption at the Paris city hall during his time as mayor. In 2001, when the president was summoned for questioning, he denied any responsibility and refused to show up, invoking presidential immunity. French law protects presidents while in office and the investigation yielded a conviction against Juppe.

The graft inquiry didn’t stop Chirac being re-elected for a second term in 2002, when anti-immigration National Front leader Jean-Marie Le Pen unexpectedly leapfrogged Jospin in the first round. Chirac, who had campaigned on a law-and-order platform, beat Le Pen with 82% of the vote in the runoff.

In the first round, Chirac had taken 19.88% of the vote, the lowest tally for an incumbent president since de Gaulle founded France’s Fifth Republic in 1958.

Muslim Scarves

In his second term, to underscore the France’s secular traditions, Chirac pushed through legislation banning Muslim headscarves and other signs of religious belief in state schools in 2004, despite protests from Islamic communities inside and outside France.

At the same time, and in conflict with many senior figures in his new party grouping, the Union for a Popular Movement, he spoke in favor of holding talks with Turkey to consider the admission of the secular but mostly Muslim country into the EU.

Within a year of his re-election, Chirac was firm in his opposition to Bush’s determination to invade Iraq and unseat President Saddam Hussein. France led the arguments against an intervention in the UN Security Council, threatening to use its veto.

Domestic Setbacks

At home, Chirac suffered several setbacks that dealt a blow to his popularity in 2005. By early September, only 26% of French voters said they trusted the president. The TNS-Sofres poll, published in Le Figaro Magazine, was conducted on a sample of 1,000 people, and gave no margin of error.

Chirac’s popularity plummeted when France rejected the EU Constitution in a referendum on May 29, 2005, the first veto of an EU pact by a founding member. His successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, pushed the constitution through parliament in 2008 without resubmitting it for a popular vote.

The president suffered a further setback when London unexpectedly won a bid to host the 2012 Olympic Games, beating Paris, the favorite. For the French capital the decision marked its third failure in 20 years to host the games.

In what many commentators saw as a gaffe that irritated some members of the Olympic Committee, Chirac was reported by French newspaper Liberation as saying that “mad cow” disease was the U.K.’s contribution to farming and that “you can’t trust people who cook as badly as” the British.

Chirac had two daughters: Laurence Chirac, who died of cardiac arrest in 2016 at age 58, and Claude Chirac, who spearheaded her father’s campaign during his two successful presidential elections.

First Published: Fri, September 27 2019. 02:33 IST