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Jacques Chirac
Has His Presidency Been a Complete Disaster for France?

Why are we asking this question now?

On New Year's Eve, Jacques Chirac will almost certainly address the nation as president for the last time. Barring some national calamity or crisis before the elections in April and May, this will be the final chance for M. Chirac to speak to his "chers compatriotes" on live television and try to make some sense of the muddle of his 40 years in politics and the calamities of his nearly 12 years in the Elysée Palace.

Will he finally admit that, at 74 years old, and with absurdly low poll ratings, he has no chance of winning another term in office? Will he finally endorse the candidacy of his detested, former protégé Nicolas Sarkozy? Probably not. Not yet, anyway.

President Chirac is said to cling to a desperate belief that the French bourgeoisie might still turn to him to save France from Ségolène Royal, who is not only a socialist but (choc, horreur) a woman. In truth, if President Chirac decides to run again, it will mostly be to spite Sarkozy. A Chirac-Sarkozy civil war on the moderate right would turn the possibility of a President(e) Royal into a near certainty.

How will Chirac be remembered in France?

Chirac was elected, at his third attempt, in 1995. France was then a fractiously divided nation, with high unemployment and no consensus on how to adapt to the new global economy, while preserving what was most successful, and most French, about France. There was an alarming contempt for mainstream politicians and institutions and a drift to the demagogic and blindly nationalist extremes of right and left. Chirac promised to heal the "social fracture" of the nation.

Eleven years and seven months later, France is exactly where it was in 1995. If anything, the country's democratic health has declined. Cynicism and the attraction of the blind alleys of far right and far left have grown.

Domestically, the Chirac years will go down as 12 years of wasted time. A couple of attempts at timid economic and social reform were interrupted by a co-habitation with a Socialist government, whose monument is the shorter, 35-hour working week (something detested by the centre-right). The suburban riots last year showed that little has been done to heal the "social fracture" of France.

It would be unfair to say that Chirac fiddled while France burned. He dithered while France drifted.

And what is Chirac's record abroad?

Jacques Chirac will always be remembered abroad for having had the guts and foresight to resist the American-British invasion of Iraq in March 2003. He was monstered in the American and British press at the time for being a) a bad ally b) in financial hock to Saddam Hussein c) anti-American.

Let us recall what Chirac actually said. There is no urgent need to topple Saddam. Occupation of Iraq will be a nightmare. We should concentrate on the struggle against Bin-Ladenism. Real friends and allies do not blindly follow but point out possibly calamitous errors.

Americans especially might care to consider who was the more valuable (though ignored) ally in 2003, Jacques Chirac or Tony Blair. That being said, the rest of Chiraquian foreign policy, and especially European policy, has been incoherent.

President Chirac has failed to advance the "multi-polar" world - ie a world not dominated by American interests and values - which he preached in 2003. He even contributed to a significant defeat for "multi-polarism", the crippling of the European Union. Chirac pushed for a European constitution and then lost interest. He called a referendum on the constitution in France and failed to sell the idea to his "chers compatriotes". The referendum "Non" vote in May 2005 was a devastating blow to the EU and, de facto, the end of Chirac's influence at home and abroad.

Is there anything positive to say?

Yes. President Chirac, with one or two, mild electorally-driven lapses, has always been a fierce enemy or racism and the extreme right. He was the first French president to admit that the apparatus of the French state was complicit in the Holocaust during the collaborationist, Vichy regime of 1940-44.

Anything else?

He has personally saved the lives of over 9,000 French people. President Jacques Chirac decided to make road safety one of the pet issues of his second term of office in 2002. Since then French road safety laws, especially the speeding rules, have been properly enforced for the first time. The impact on road deaths has been dramatic. By the end of this year, the number of lives saved since 2002 will be well over 9,000.

Does Chirac face the prospect of jail when he leaves office?

Hardly. He may face prosecution for alleged illegal political fund-raising (on a heroic scale) when he was Mayor of Paris from 1974-1995. During his term in the Elysée, he has been protected by his presidential immunity. Several former confidantes in the town hall, including the former prime minister, Alain Juppé, have been convicted of organising, or being aware of, various scams to divert Paris tax-payers' money into the coffers of Chirac's neo-Gaullist party (now defunct), the Rassemblement pour la Républiqe (RPR). None of those convicted has been sent to jail. If a prosecution is brought against Chirac, it will probably limp along for years and end, at most, in a suspended sentence and fine.

Is there a Chirac legacy? Will he have monument?

Presidents De Gaulle, Giscard, Mitterrand, in their different ways, left their fingerprints on France. Chirac's lasting influence will be negligible. He managed to unite almost all the squabbling factions of the centre-right within one party, the Union Pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), but that party was almost immediately stolen from him by Nicolas Sarkozy. Four years after the UMP was created as a vehicle for Chirac, the party is a Sarkozian glee club. Its slogan is "Imagine France afterwards". After whom? one might ask.

De Gaulle has an airport and a square. Pompidou has his modern arts centre and a fast road beside the Seine. Mitterrand has a library and a short section of Seine quay beside the Louvre. What will Paris name after Jacques Chirac?

The city might consider renaming the Rue Vaugirard on the Left Bank. The street is one of the oldest in Paris. It rambles on forever, twists and turns in various directions and then ends nowhere in particular. Perfect for a Rue Jacques Chirac.

What can be said for and against Jacques Chirac's record in office?


* He stood up to George Bush and Tony Blair at the United Nations on Iraq, for reasons that have proved correct

* He saved thousands of French lives by seeing that the road safety laws were properly enforced for the first time

* He has a sound record on resisting racism and extremism


* His presidency has failed to grapple with France's economic and social problems

* He weakened the EU by pushing for a constitition, calling a referendum in France and then losing it

* His presidency had reinforced cynicism about politicians in France

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