Jacques Chirac is no longer President of France. And that’s a good thing.
Now that Jacques Chirac has departed the Ă?â?°lysée Palace and will no longer be President of France, let me be among the many to say that he will not be missed. The shortsightedness, corruption and chauvinism that were the hallmarks of his Presidency not only helped besmirch Chirac’s political career, they reflected badly on the French people themselves. Long after his departure, the Ă?â?°lysée Palace will be haunted by Chirac’s tawdry legacy. The institution of the French Presidency and the French people as a whole surely deserved better.
Let’s start with a review of Chirac’s policies — none of which vindicate what is doubtless his self-image as a great statesman. The France Chirac has left behind suffers from crippling unemployment, labor and social unrest and a generally sclerotic business and economic climate. As I have written in the past, Nicolas Sarkozy is hardly the perfect person to turn around the French ship of state. But when compared to Chirac, he is a breath of fresh air and a positively revolutionary choice for President of France.
Although Chirac was a great proponent of further European integration, Washington Post writer John Leicester points out that Chirac botched the integration effort by putting the issue to a referendum in 2005 . . . only to have the French people reject his efforts. As Leicester shows, Chirac’s failure to help bring about further European integration was the consequence of his tendency to think more about affairs outside of France’s borders than matters within it. The failed referendum stands as a monument to the degree to which Jacques Chirac was out of touch with the feelings and sentiments of his own people.
If Chirac were merely an incompetent President, it would be enough to justify celebrating his departure. Alas, Chirac did not content himself with offering France fifth-rate leadership. He was a corrupt figure as well.
A mere eleven days after his departure from the Ă?â?°lysée Palace, it was discovered that Chirac has a secret bank account in Japan which contains £30 million (close to $60 million in American dollars) that had been funneled into it. For Chirac, political involvement and financial well-being have historically gone hand in hand — notwithstanding the fact that Chirac’s need and greed for financial profit has repeatedly run afoul of the law. As mayor of Paris, Chirac oversaw the payment of £50 million in kickbacks to his political party in return for the approval of school building contracts. In addition, there are allegations that as much as £3,500 per week in municipal funds went to pay for Chirac’s groceries, with bills having been found to have been forged. As President, Chirac was immune from prosecution regarding the allegations concerning his tenure as Mayor of Paris. His immunity comes to an end in the middle of June, but Chirac has allegedly sought Sarkozy’s help in protecting him from prosecution (Sarkozy denies that he has promised Chirac any kind of immunity and has specifically denied that the promise of immunity was offered as a quid pro quo in exchange for Chirac’s support during the presidential elections).
Chirac’s brushes with corruption are not limited to profiteering. In 2004, former Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin sought to portray Nicolas Sarkozy, as having taken bribes from defense contractors by peddling a fabricated list to the public. Sarkozy was once Chirac’s protégé, until they had a falling out back in 1995 when Sarkozy backed Ă?â?°douard Balladur for the Presidency instead of Chirac. Instead of sacking his Prime Minister, Chirac gave de Villepin his unconditional backing, causing even the most casual observer to believe that he approved — at least tacitly — of the effort to smear Sarkozy. There is no revenge like petty revenge and Jacques Chirac may very well be the patron saint of petty revenge.
Having attained the Presidency despite Chirac’s best efforts to sabotage his political career in the wake of the 1995 endorsement of Ă?â?°douard Balladur, Sarkozy has had the last laugh over his onetime-mentor. But the entire sordid affair demonstrates Chirac’s willingness to turn a blind eye to corrupt activity — and then to cover up and advocate fiercely on behalf of those who initiated the activity, merely because a political enemy had been targeted in the process.
In the event that incompetence and corruption are not enough to appall, consider that Chirac has been one of the most, well, gauche politicians ever to sully the French political landscape with his presence. I can do no better than columnist Anne Applebaum, who has laid out Chirac’s appalling past comments in detail for history to consider. As Applebaum recounts, during his Presidency, Chirac casually denigrated the idea of political pluralism in the Ivory Coast, unceremoniously dismissed the suppression of dissidents in Tunisia, took it upon himself to declare the entire continent of Africa unfit for democracy and said of the British people that “The only thing they have ever done for European agriculture is mad cow disease . . . You can’t trust people who cook as badly as that.”
Applebaum also shows that Chirac has consistently demonstrated a willingness to sidle up to the most appalling of authoritarian leaders. He caused a diplomatic disaster in Latvia last year in which he showed that he valued the friendship of Vladimir Putin more than he did that of President Bush . . . and he insulted the President of Latvia in the process. Then again, considering Chirac’s past expressions of friendship for Saddam Hussein, his anger at Eastern Europe for supporting the actions of the United States in the United Nations and his willingness to make excuses for Iran’s drive towards nuclear weapons at a time when he was supposed to be working for Iran’s disarmament, perhaps we can at least praise Jacques Chirac for having maintained some semblance of consistency in his worldview and his priorities.
And he can maintain that consistency in private life for all anyone cares. Whatever one’s political convictions and however much one cares about the future of France, let it be resolved that people like Jacques Chirac have no business being President of any country.