Jacques Chirac: The Art of Being Vague

Binoy Kampmark

The tributes have been dripping in heavy praise: former French president Jacques Chirac and mayor of Paris, the great statesman; the man who said no to the US-led war juggernaut into Iraq; the man loved for being loved.

Many of these should have raised the odd eyebrow here and there.

“We French have lost a statesman whom we loved as much as he loved us,” claimed current French president Emmanuel Macron.

When greatness is tossed around as a term in French commemorations, there is always a sense of merging the corporeal flesh with the non-corporeal state.  The person thereby “embodies” France, inhabiting that rather complex shell that passes for a state. But the comparisons are all too loose and ready, showing an awkward accommodation.

Eulogies are often the poorly chosen instruments to express the mood of an occasion rather than the reality of a life.  Given the crises facing the European Union, the pro-European sentiment of Chirac was cause for nostalgia. (He had encouraged a United Europe of States rather than a United States of Europe, moving France away from the Gaullist credo of self-sufficiency.) 

“Europe is not only losing a great statesman, but the president is losing a great friend,” claimed Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission in a statement.  Former Belgian Prime Minister Guy Verhofstadt saw his Europhilia and interest in Europe as the making of the man, “the real statesman that we will miss.”

Terms of amity were also reiterated by former French President François Hollande, whom Chirac had described in previous political battles as “Mitterrand’s labrador”. 

“I know that today, the French people, whatever their convictions, have just lost a friend.”

Smaller figures of history were also effusive in their praise: Boris Johnson, current British prime minister flailing in the Brexit imbroglio, expressed his admiration for that “formidable political leader who shaped the destiny of his nation in a career that spanned four decades”; one term UK prime minister John Major also doffed his cap.

Where Chirac excelled without question was in his role as political hypocrite (a kinder term would be political gymnast, or a weathervane, as he was sometimes associated with).

Mayor of Paris for a touch under two decades, two stints as prime minister and two presidential terms suggest ample opportunity to master it. It also suggests shifts, adjustments and moving across hardened political divisions, the pragmatist rather than the polemicist.

His costumery in that regard could be exquisite. He could readily give the “le bruit et l’odeur” address in 1991 yet become the anti-racist option in the 2002 election, in which shell-shocked progressives were urged to vote for the crook rather than the fascist, Jean-Marie Le Pen. 

In foreign affairs, he did something memorable: fabricate the image of France as suspicious of war and interventions, a peaceful state above reproach and self-interest. This enabled him to lead the anti-war effort against Iraq mounted by the United States and Britain in 2003.

The populist jab is worth noting for its current relevance: the terror of an overcrowded Europe, the fear of tax-payer funded marauders – often of the swarthy persuasion – that has been played upon from Nigel Farage in Britain to Viktor Orbán in Hungary. 

Imagine, posed Chirac, the humble French worker with his wife who sees next to his council house a father with three or four spouses with some twenty children all supported by welfare. “If you add to that the noise and the smell, well the French worker, he goes crazy.”

He was also a creature of a brand of politics that would wear against the regulations.  Mountainous ambition will do that to you, and the rust on Le Bulldozer was bound to be discovered at some point. 

In 2011, he was handed a two-year suspended sentence on two counts of embezzling public funds, something he did during his time as Paris’s mayor.  The specifics centred around the creation of fake jobs at his RPR party and suggested no grand scheme of self-enrichment.

Even after his conviction, Chirac the amiable, Chirac the admired, was a theme pressed home by his lawyer, Georges Kiejman.  “What I hope is that this ruling doesn’t change in any way the deep affection the French feel legitimately for Jacques Chirac.”  Kiejman had little reason to worry.

While hardly virtuoso, he advanced the uncomfortable question of French complicity in Nazi crimes, the otherwise great untouchable subject of post-war identity. The measure was significant, sinking, at least in some way, the notion that the French republic somehow retained its purity in abolition during German occupation and Vichy rule. That rule had resulted in a mutant political creation and monster; France the Republic could not be blamed, having ceased to exist.

As former French President François Mitterrand claimed, rather unconvincingly, “In 1940, there was the French state, this was the Vichy regime, it was not the Republic.”

Mitterrand, as with many in his position, did not feel an urging to join the French resistance till 1943; prior to that, he had been a civil servant in Vichy.

On July 16, 1995, Chirac noted how “the criminal folly of the occupiers was seconded by the French by the French state.” 

In July 1942 in the Vel’ d’Hiv roundup, 13,000 Parisian Jews were arrested by 4,500 French police in preparation for their murderous end in Auschwitz.

France, the homeland of the Enlightenment and of the rights of man, a land of welcome asylum, on that day committed the irreparable. [The country had broken] its word, it handed those who were under its protection over to their executioners.”

Court historians will be kept busy wondering about the man’s ideologies and beliefs. They will ponder legacies left, and things unachieved. Structural and social divisions, for instance, remained unaddressed.  With Chirac, appearances and demeanour had their distorting effects.

Chirac, wrote French journalist Anne-Élisabeth Moutet, sported a “forceful manner” that concealed “terminal policy indecision”. 

While leaving no lasting legacy, he had one up over the current, struggling leader. Despite being a chateau-owner, in the pink as far as the bourgeoisie was concerned, and married to an aristocrat, he had the common touch.

For Professor Pascal Perrineau of the Paris School of International Affairs, he was a president who jogged and rode a Vespa, and appreciated for that fact. 

His lasting skill, however, was to immortalise the art of being vague in politics.

Dr. Binoy Kampmark was a Commonwealth Scholar at Selwyn College, Cambridge.  He lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne. Email: [email protected]


If you enjoy OffG's content, please help us make our monthly fund-raising goal and keep the site alive.

For other ways to donate, including direct-transfer bank details click HERE.

Categories: France, latest
Notify of

oldest most voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Apr 4, 2021 10:28 AM

Thank you for this wonderful contribution, I find it very interesting. I hope to read your work in the future. t rex game

Feb 18, 2021 9:09 AM

thanks for such good blog unicorn coloring pages

Jacoby Castillo
Jacoby Castillo
Feb 20, 2020 3:17 PM

Eulogies are often the poorly chosen instruments to express the mood of an occasion rather than the reality of a life. Given the crises facing the European Union, the pro-European sentiment of Chirac was cause for nostalgia. (He had encouraged a United Europe of States rather than a United States of Europe, moving France away from the Gaullist credo of self-sufficiency.) Review: run 3 online.

Oct 2, 2019 1:43 PM

Chirac was an extremely corrupt, slippery, and devious politician, but he should be given some credit for getting Iraq right.
He tried unsuccessfully to talk Blair out of it – “I did national service in the French army in Algeria, one million dead, it’s going to be just like that again.”

George Cornell
George Cornell
Oct 2, 2019 9:32 PM
Reply to  mark

Chirac did not offer Blair the prospect of unlimited fake lecture tours, obscenely well compensated, so he could spout his mad dog third way gospel before they passed the plate around. But we all know Blair was for sale. Blair got off bloviating (still does) to people pretending to listen but only in his audience because they thought having the UK along would give them cred. so they could get Iraq’s oil and test out their military hardware. And Blair earned their eternal gratitude. What a tiny price they paid! The modern day equivalent of thirty pieces of silver. It is not possible to accurately estimate the damage done to Britains reputation yet. Too many zeroes.

Chirac deserves a lot of credit, and so does Chrétien. Fartcatching Australia, shamelessly and softly mouthing “How high should we jump , Massa?” deserves to be scorned forever.

Fair dinkum
Fair dinkum
Oct 2, 2019 2:02 AM

Being dead.
The ultimate equaliser.

Oct 1, 2019 11:10 PM

I seem to be disagreeing with you again, Binoy. Consider these two phrases (which you don’t mention) that came from the American administration (aka psychopaths) with regard to the Chirac presidency: “cheese eating surrender monkeys” “freedom fries” (as opposed to ‘French fries’) And there was much more, all because Chirac refused to take part in the mass murder in Iraq. Chirac was the last real French president, and here in France there’s been a massive outpouring of grief for his loss on all sides of the political spectrum (and this during a time of revolution that people like you never seem to speak about; and of course the MSM completely blanks it all out). After president Chirac we had Sarkozy, Hollande and now the maggot Macron, all of which are completely in the pockets of the American establishment/globalists. It’s why there’s a revolution going on in France right now. But,… Read more »

George Cornell
George Cornell
Oct 1, 2019 4:56 PM

Good informative essay. Comments on the Vichy and related matters? Is this some kind of soporific value signalling which is code for other scribblers? There is so much else to have talked about, and that horse is dead, and more flogging will not resurrect it.

Oct 1, 2019 3:43 PM

Chirac was a vieux escroc but he was an old crook with principles: the last French president to resist the U$A. He had to go, and Sarkozy (with a half brother in Rothschild’s Carlyle.co) had to take his place. Then France could join up with English banker Camoron and U$ bankers scion Obomba and Grandma Hilary Goldman Sachs to take over Libya’s gold; and oil; and fresh water. And destroy, destroy, destroy, destroy. Like capitalism is doing to the rest of this planet.

Brian Steere
Brian Steere
Oct 1, 2019 3:32 PM

The mainstream illusion or narrative reality assertion needs seek sustainability for it is is running as the continuity-manager of established set of the mind under power – or indeed under the acceptance of the idea of powerlessness in need of alliance of support – that always comes from the overreach of a self-inflation as ‘power over’, that takes on what is not its own while neglecting what is. Is the mainstream-mind’s purpose ONLY to mask the fear and hate that armours to power struggle running beneath? Perhaps while that is the only purpose we give it. I have a sense of culture as development of consciousness – and not as its mass denial under enforced scarcity and imposed austerities. People – all of us – live our lives in the world of our beliefs – perhaps to be shattered or reinforced in deeper illusions – such as cynical dis-illusion –… Read more »

Ben Trovata
Ben Trovata
Oct 1, 2019 8:09 PM
Reply to  Brian Steere

“VLADIMIR: And they didn’t beat you? ESTRAGON:Beat me? Certainly they beat me. VLADIMIR:The same lot as usual? ESTRAGON:The same? I don’t know.” (” Waiting for Godot”,I,1)