He knew how to be the preferred mayor of French society Jacques Chirac: the last pompidurian

02/10/2019

Eduardo Inclán Gil, historian and researcher. Maître en Histoire by the University of Toulouse II-Jean Jaures


Jacques Chirac, the former president of France, died on 26 September at the age of 86. Chirac is a political figure that has marked the future of France since the 1960s, having already been State Secretary of Employment during the student revolt of May 1968, until his departure from politics in 2007. Until then, he was the great protagonist of that political process as French as the cohabitation of left and right in the management of the affairs of the Republic, something that has fallen into oblivion in the last decade, but that marked the policy of the Hexagon from 1986 to 2002. And in that process, Chirac was always the face that the French saw from home, either as prime minister or as president.

Jacques René Chirac knew how to adapt to the political reality born at the hands of General De Gaulle and his longest-running creation, the Fifth French Republic, the framework in which he carried out his entire career. Although it is true that during his 42 years as a politician he did not always enjoy the applause of the voters, the caricature of his figure was made during 20 years in the popular program of Canal+ France Les Guignols de l'Info, as well as the celebrations in the Elysée Palace of the victory of France in the World Cup of soccer in 1998 and his second presidential mandate between 2002 and 2007, made him an emblematic figure, having at the time of his death a share of popularity similar to that kept among the French general De Gaulle and doubling in popularity to his great rival François Mitterrand. This makes him a beloved figure among the citizens, who see in him the president of a period in which France knew how to be in its place at an international level, and in which politicians were still respected in spite of the successive and delicate issues that beset him since his arrival at the Ministry of Agriculture in 1972.

It is also noteworthy that having been born in Paris in 1932 and its mayor for 18 years, managed to make believe that his roots came from the department of Correze, where he began his career as an elected office, representing for decades the social prototype of the provincial man who triumphs in national politics, who knows the rural world and its circumstances (he was an annual fixture at the Salon de l'Agriculture) and who could have been mayor of any small provincial capital, traits that brought him closer to his traditional ideological base, the conservative voters orphaned by political references after the death of General De Gaulle and the disappearance of Pompidou, and who never empathised with the liberal Valery Giscard d'Estaing. It is true that Chirac was not a veteran of the anti-Nazi Resistance, nor a hero, so his leap into public life, after his graduation in the ENA in 1959, was given by the hand of George Pompidou in 1965 as a centrist, which made him seen by the political class of the time as an heir to the president who died prematurely in 1974 and to his political legacy.

But on an ideological level, Chirac was always a bastion of the pro-European centre-right, although he had some movements during his career. As a young man, being in the Faculty of Political Science in Paris, he was integrated into the youth groups close to the powerful French Communist Party of the post-war period. That would later bring him problems, since in 1955 he did his military service and wanted to be a cavalry officer, being rejected for his political ideas and reaching only the level of non-commissioned officer in his discharge. Shortly thereafter, family contacts with his then-fiancée Bernadette helped him obtain a post in Algeria in April 1956. It was in the then rebellious colony where the young Chirac, committed to French Algeria, became a supporter of the new regime that emerged from the collapse of the Fourth Republic and the arrival to power of the Gaullists. And as a student of the ENA he went on to defend centrist ideas, with a rapprochement with the United States after dedicating his dissertation to the city of New Orleans.

As a young puppy of the Pompidou administration, he was one of the public faces of the cabinet during the days of protests in May 1968, in charge of negotiating with the trade unions to avoid blocking industry and the supply of the country's main cities. Even in the 1960s he was seen as an eclectic politician who mixed right and left ideas, receiving support from former socialists for his election campaigns. This slowed his arrival at an important ministry until 1972, first as Minister of Agriculture and then of the Interior. And upon the death of his mentor he had to ally himself with the liberals and centrists, supporting Giscard's presidential candidacy, against the candidates coming from Gaullism. As a reward, Chirac reached the post of prime minister in June 1974, launching the program of major reforms promised by the new president in the campaign: approval of the abortion law, reform of the Family Code, majority at 18 years of age, extension of Social Security, and so on. All this confronted the party and the Gaullists. Thus, faced with the risk of the majority breaking up, Chirac himself was elected leader of the UDR party, something that ended up confronting him with President Giscard and led to his resignation, which was justified by the consequences of the economic crisis, the uncontrolled inflation and the successive tax increases due to the problems of financing the public sector in the midst of the oil crisis.

Following his departure from government in August 1976, Chirac became the leader of discontent with the liberal politics of Raymond Barre's cabinet. And he decides to refortify his party, once he has secured the support of the Gaullists, who now see him as a lesser evil before Giscard. Thus, in December 1976, he founded the RPR, a party of a more popular character and of provinces than the UDF of the members of the government. Therefore, Chirac is now accepted as a leader by the conservative right, in exchange for losing the technocrats and business classes of the country. In this way, he achieves his first success as a leader, being elected in 1977 at the ballot boxes the first mayor of the city of Paris since the Commune revolt in 1870. This provided Chirac with a local platform that he would employ in national politics, a period in which he would appear in the media as the "Mayor of France". As mayor of the capital he remained until his arrival at the presidency of the Republic in 1995, after some judicial problems accused of using the mayor's office to finance his successive electoral campaigns of the 80s and 90s.

Chirac was the great beneficiary on the French right after the victory of the socialists in 1981 and the arrival at the Elysée Palace of François Mitterrand. Chirac managed to defeat his liberal and centrist rivals in 1986 and 1988 to become the clear leader of the opposition to the socialists and communists who ruled France. He triumphed by agglutinating the discontent of the middle classes and won the 1986 legislative elections with a program of demolition of the work of the Mitterrand government, retaking the essences of the traditional Gaullist grandeur. And he managed to create a single platform for the entire centre-right that was imposed in the legislative elections and to regain the post of prime minister in March 1986. Here appears the Europeanist Chirac, friend of Chancellor Helmut Kohl and committed to the reforms of the EEC at the proposal of the commission chaired by Jacques Delors. Internally he imposed a reformist and liberal policy, reducing the weight of the State in the economy, approving privatizations and deregulations of broad economic sectors, and maintaining a policy of firmness in security and immigration policies.

In 1988 Chirac launches to the conquest of the presidency in front of a Mitterrand that undermines the work of the government from the Elysée; it is the first cohabitation of the V Republic. But the campaign is not going well for the right, again divided by the rise of Jean Marie Le Pen's National Front and the regrouping of the left around the head of state. As a result, the victory in May of President Mitterrand, re-elected for seven years, resulted in a new defeat for Chirac and the right in the legislative elections in June, passing again to the opposition and taking refuge in the Paris City Hall. It was a long and problematic period for the leadership of an RPR in crisis, with the emergence of different internal currents and doubts about the increased support of the anti-immigration right wing of Le Pen. However, the economic crisis in 1992 and the internal crisis of the PSF prepared a good outlook for the legislative elections of 1993. In order to avoid tension, a division of roles was decided after the victory: Édouard Balladur would be the prime minister of the second cohabitation, while Chirac would be the candidate for the presidency of the Republic in 1995. But when the time comes, Balladur competes with Chirac to be president against a socialist like Lionel Jospin at low hours. The electoral campaign in spring is very hard, but finally Chirac imposes himself in the first round to his former friend and ally Balladur, defeating easily then in May in second round to Jospin.

Finally Jacques Chirac reaches the Elysée, has a government majority and appoints his faithful Alain Juppé as prime minister. It is the triumph of a politician who has left behind much of his popularity during the 1990s, overcoming an image of crafty and manipulative in front of a Balladur seen as more sincere and without dark sides. Then the social situation is aggravated by the demands for reform of the employers to make a policy similar to his government of 1986-88, while the unions are on the warpath before the possible loss of public policies to be privatized. In addition, the recovery of nuclear device tests in the islands of French Polynesia causes the left-wing opposition to regroup and take to the streets in massive mobilizations against government policy. Faced with this situation, in April 1997 the president decided to sign the dissolution of the National Assembly a year earlier than was necessary and to call an election which, held between May and June, gave victory to the "plural left". Lionel Jospin assumes the position of prime minister and the third cohabitation begins, this time lasting five years.

It was the moment when Jacques Chirac had to change. He stopped being a partisan politician to start showing himself as a statesman, appearing as the "king" of the French Republic, representing the essence of the country, being its best ambassador and helmsman of foreign policy. La grandeur in its pure state, but always maintaining good relations with Russia (he was one of Vladimir Putin's first supporters in the West), with the European Union, with Germany and with Spain. It is during these years when the collaboration in the fight against ETA in the south of France worked best and when the Spanish Civil Guard has a permanent base to be able to pass all intelligence information to French prosecutors and judges, which led to the practice of dismantling the terrorist group. They were also the years in which ETA came to attack on French soil, murdering gendarmes and threatening the anti-terrorist judges of the Republic.

The presidential elections were prepared for May 2002, but the Jospin government changed the 1957 Constitution leaving the presidential mandate for five-year periods, so Chirac sought re-election for a five-year term. The left had good previous data and seemed to be able to win, but the Twin Towers attack in September 2001 changed the reality. Uncertainty in the face of new terrorist attacks did not go well with President Chirac's good relations with the Arab world, especially Morocco and the United Arab Emirates. The elections, however, focused on French domestic policies and the right was united, although Le Pen's boom also weakened this sector. After the first round, the shock began. Chirac won first place, but the second round would be against Jean Marie Le Pen, who eliminated Prime Minister Jospin. Faced with this result, Chirac reaffirmed his policy of republican front against the "frontist", receiving the support of the whole left. Chirac reached 82% of the votes in the second round, being re-elected and dissolving the cameras in June so that the right recovered the majority in the face of the disorientation of the left. Once again Chirac controlled all power and was no longer going to run for re-election, so he himself could be freed from all ties with the party or the opposition. He became the symbol of France.

For this long five-year government, he appointed Prime Minister Jean Pierre Raffarin, an ambition-proof faithful. He bet on increasing France's role in the process of drafting a European constitution by putting its former boss and rival, Valery Giscard d'Esteing, in charge of the project. The problem leapt when the French rejected this text in May 2005 in a referendum, although Chirac always demonstrated his commitment to the European project, the euro, the CFSP, the single market and eastward enlargement. And it became very popular throughout Europe when Chirac, with the support of German Chancellor Gerhardt Schroeder, opposed American President George Bush and British Premier Tony Blair in their 2002 UN project to invade Iraq. Chirac became the symbol of Old Europe for the Americans, but remained in his position until the end.

After the failure of the referendum on the European constitution, there were changes in government. A loyalist to the president, Dominique de Villepin, was appointed prime minister against the ambitions of the Minister of the Interior, Nicolas Sarkozy, and those of the centrists led by Jean Louis Borloo, both not very close to the Elysée Palace. These were two very difficult years for the government, but the president was able to exercise his entire role as guarantor of the nation's interests in the face of partisan fights, even though he finally gave his public support to the candidate of his new party, the UMP. Finally, in 2007, the presidential elections were played in the second round between Sarkozy and the socialist candidate Segolène Royal, the minister being the great successor despite the political disputes between the two.

Jacques Chirac, a politician with many edges and several public faces, was the best example of what the French expect from their president. The French are a people who give political victories and defeats, and who do not always punish petty corruption or sentimental excesses in the social life of their rulers. Chirac was a Frenchman who knew how to laugh at himself, recognize his limitations as a manager of the popular will and be a symbol of a country that does not renounce being a great international power. He was the last son of a great generation of politicians who quote to the rise before the smallness of their successors in the institutions. A world died with him, but France must continue as a bastion of how exceptional the European model has for the world. We will all miss him a little.

Translation by Blanca Domínguez

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