The world according to Jacques Chirac

In his autobiography, the former French president spins a romantic but hole-ridden tale designed to depict himself as Super Statesman.

Kate Prengel

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Jacques Chirac, the French president from 1995 to 2007, has written an autobiography – My Life In Politics – which reads like an old-fashioned romance; it’s every bit as tempting and as strange as something by Stendhal.

Chirac serves up one French cliché after another, from the Algerian prostitute who took his virginity when he was a young sailor, to the stern father who ordered him to start a career in politics. There is his fight to bring medicine to Darkest Africa. And then, his struggle against American imperialism! The tale of this d’Artagnan is not one to be missed.

On the face of it, Chirac’s France seems like ancient history. After all, he got his start as a soldier back in the Algerian war in the Fifties, where he fought for France’s right to hold on to her colony – though always in the name of the benighted pieds-noirs, the descendents of French settlers; Chirac pleaded their cause until the end of his career. He also likes to talk about ‘the curse that seemed to hang over the destiny of Africa’ and muses about France’s obligations towards it former possessions. There is also plenty of Gallic pomp here (‘the fact that he was also an amateur poet did not displease me’, he says of his protégé, former prime minister Dominique de Villepin) to give you a laugh.

But Chirac really gets down to business when he turns to the Iraq War in 2003. How long ago that seems! How strange, today, to read about France aligning itself with Russia and China against the UK and US in opposition to the invasion of Iraq. Is this the same France which, in the past five or six years under Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande’s presidencies, has been marching in step with the US and calling for early intervention all over the Middle East? (In fact, in Libya and Syria, and now Mali, France has pushed even harder for intervention than the Americans or British.)

Chirac spends two or three chapters detailing his meetings with George W Bush – in Chirac’s telling, Jacques tried to set George straight from day one, but the rash American just wouldn’t listen – and listing his flights around the world to rally members of the UN Security Council to his cause. It was a heady time for Jacques.

But were things really so different back then? Or rather, has France really changed since Chirac’s day? After all, Chirac was no starry-eyed pacifist. France is not Costa Rica; it is a country with nuclear weapons and a strong memory of its imperial past, and when France stays out of a fight it is generally to save money or to further its own glory, or both. In this case, of course, France had its own oil interests in Iraq and plenty of French people and companies had been making decent money skimming from the UN’s oil-for-food programme, which ended with the invasion of Baghdad. French glory was served by its opposition to the war, just as French glory is now served by leading the charge in Syria and Mali. Back in 2003, having the poetic de Villepin give fiery speeches at the UN made for wonderful theatre. Chirac must have known all along that Bush would do whatever he wanted, and so France had the luxury of posturing with no need to follow through.

It’s worth noting that Chirac also tried to use his anti-war stance to win allies in the Middle East. (‘I am a friend to Islam’, proclaims the man who banned the head scarf.) In March 2003, Chirac, accompanied by a crowd of French businessmen, became the first French president to pay an official visit to Algeria since that country’s independence.

Under Sarkozy, France’s relationship with its former colonies lost its easy, paternalistic tone. Chirac could talk about the need to ‘include’ alienated Algerian immigrants in French society; Sarkozy, less secure about his position in the French elite, talked about cleaning out the French ghetto with bleach. Once he became president, Sarkozy also adopted a frankly aggressive foreign policy, notably in Libya and Côte d’Ivoire. Francois Hollande has largely followed in those footsteps.

It would be strangely easy, at least for non-interventionists, to get nostalgic for Chirac’s old-fashioned brand of foreign policy. If only Chirac’s mythology were real.

The final chapter of My Life In Politics ends on a predictably dreamy note. Chirac chats about his interest in the arts: ‘Few people at that time knew about my own passion for African and Asian arts, which I had been careful to keep well hidden. It suited me very well to pass for a philistine.’ Finally, he describes the moment of leaving office and driving serenely away from the Elysee Palace. ‘There is life after power’, he says. Well, we can only hope.

Kate Prengel is a writer and art critic living in New York.

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