The former French president Jacques Chirac, an icon in France’s political history with seemingly never-ending luck and one of the longest political careers in Europe, has died aged 86. Chirac, who was head of state from 1995-2007, held one of the longest continuous political careers in Europe – twice president, twice prime minister and 18 years as the mayor of Paris. Yet, Chirac’s impressive time in office was not without scandal.
Chirac was much mocked for his swaying stance on environmental issues throughout his career. Despite permitting nuclear tests over the south Pacific Ocean in the late 90s (which endangered many of Australia’s surrounding islands), Chirac spoke out profusely at the 2002 environmental summit, urging to the attendants that “our house is burning while we look elsewhere”. Such a shift in stance earned him the media nickname “the weathervane”. This nickname was just one of many, his most famous nickname being “Superliar” after his historic trial in 2011, which made him the first president to be convicted of corruption following embezzlement charges in a party funding scandal when he was mayor of Paris.
However, despite these repeated attacks on his credibility and honesty as a leader, he was still seen to embody the role of president with a style and charisma that Sarkozy and Hollande would later be lacking in the eyes of the public. Perhaps the best representation of his public image is in this quote from Chirac’s lawyer during the embezzlement scandal – Georges Kiejamn: “What I hope is that this ruling doesn’t change in any way the deep affection the French feel legitimately for Jacques Chirac”.
Arguably the best description of Chirac is a man of words over actions. Despite having left France struggling with the debt, inequalities and the unemployment that she struggled with before he entered office, Chirac was praised on the international stage for his open rebuttal of social issues. He was strongly anti-Iraq war, famously urging that “War is always a last resort. It is always proof of failure. It is always the worst of solutions, because it brings death and misery.” The week before the US-led coalition forces entered the war zone. Chirac was also praised for recognising France’s role in the holocaust – an action which made him the first post-war French head of state to fully acknowledge France’s role.
Though, from a more ‘political’ perspective, Chirac’s real legacy seems to be his presence as a ‘political icon’. Jacques Chirac was a master at political seduction, using the media to curate an image of himself in a way that harked back to the legacy of De Gaulle upon the founding of the 5th Republic. Chirac presented himself as a true beer-drinking, Gitanes-smoking Frenchman, almost synonymous with the members of the public he represented in office. Along with giving a countless number of handshakes throughout his career, he was also an endless source of barbed quotes and digs, famously asking in reference to Margaret Thatcher “what more does the bag want, my balls on a platter?”, and once saying of Britain “you can’t trust people who cook as badly as that”.
Jacques Chirac will be remembered by many names: a weathervane, a paradox, a game-player. But, it seems irrefutable that Chirac will remain a lasting figure in French political history. Although he was not best known for legislative change during his time in office, his legacy paves the way for the changing presence of political actors in the tumultuous modern day political scene.
Image - Flickr