Moon of Alabama Brecht quote
March 15, 2005

40 Years of Chirac. Pauvre France!

Well, to be precise, he was first elected to a public function 40 years ago (in the municipal council of the small village of Sainte-Ferreole in central France).

He was a cabinet member for the first time under de Gaulle in 1967, and Prime Minister (i.e. really in power) for the first time in 1974, more than 30 years ago.

He has been a canditate for the presidency all his life, and, mostly accidentally, President for the last 10 years. People under 50 in France have never voted in a presidential election when he was not a candidate.

And now, in yet another negative consequence of your elections, he is still seen as a possible candidate for re-election in 2007, thanks to his international prestige as the leader of the Coalition of the UN-Willing.

Thank you, Mr Bush.

As I wrote almost a year ago when I was contemplating our sad situation (edited for today's post):

France has the sad privilege to be one of the last countries in the world to be ruled by a "dinosaur", i.e. a political leader which rose to power in the early part of the second half of last century and has not left that place since. Amongst the sad specimens of that race, one can include Fidel Castro, Muhammar Khadafi or - until late last year - Yassir Arafat. Jacques Chirac, who was a Cabinet member for the first time in 1967 under de Gaulle, can rightfully claim to be a full member of that select club whose main (and only) competence is to grab power and keep it, on the back of the general populace.

To be fair to Chirac, he has been consistently - and mostly fairly - elected and reelected in his various posts, and the French thus bear a heavy responsibility for his continued presence in power. The man is clearly a gifted campaigner, able to run campaigns well suited to the mood of the day (as a Thatcherite in 1986, as a social populist in 1995, on a law and order platform in 2002) and able to make the French people forget that he has been utterly ineffective each time he has actually been in power - and that he has each time been voted out two years later (1976-78, 1986-88, 1995-97, 2002-04*).

How to explain this apparently irrational love of the French for such a manifestly incompetent politician - whom a majority agree should be in jail? The mediocrity of the alternatives? Nostalgia for a long-lost (and presumably glorious) past? Pity for a man who made it clear that he would not give up until he reached the supreme job? The feeling that it is not so important? Or the peculiarly French trait to stick it up to others (including other Frenchmen)?

Maybe we should at least care to make sure that we are not the last country with a dinosaur...

* in March 2004, the right was routed in local elections; this reflected the population's annoyance with Chirac and his government, led by Raffarin. As the right still controls the majority in Parliament (in principle until 2007), he stays in power, but his legitimacy has been severely weakened.

Yesterday's Guardian had a good article on this phenomenon, which, for a British article about France, was almost - almost! - fair...

Milestone for the president who mirrors his people
First and foremost, Chirac is an energy," said the writer and broadcaster Bertrand Delais, author of the first of a plethora of commentaries due out this anniversary year. "That's what's kept him going - an extraordinary energy in the service of a boundless ambition."

He works hard at his popularity. In the early days, he kept a bucket of iced water in the back of his car to plunge his aching fingers into after every campaign stop. "In this country, everyone has either shaken Chirac's hand or knows someone who has," says a current cabinet minister.

But for many observers, the real secret of his success is that the French see themselves in him. He is " un bon gars "; a good bloke, down-to-earth, no snob. Like them (certainly like their rugby team), he is not beaten even when he's down, never stronger than when he is up against it.

"He can reinvent himself and come back from the worst of whitewashes," says one pollster, Antoine Chaballier. "He just has to win one more time."

Also like the French, Mr Chirac appears to be a bit dodgy: if his voters fiddle their tax returns and fail to pay their parking tickets, their leader has been accused of indulging in jobs for the boys, electoral list-padding, illicit party fund raising schemes and luxury foreign holidays paid for in cash. The French like to feel they've got away with something naughty; Mr Chirac's many corruption scandals have not harmed him in the slightest.

That's not exactly true. He was really hurt in 2001 when a lot of the nastier stuff came out. He was saved by the change of attention brought by 9/11 and his own presidential campaign which focused relentlessly and in a nasty way on insecurity and fear - he has nothing to learn from Bush and Ridge in that respect. - JaP

"Chirac is like us" (...) "De Gaulle was our father, Mitterrand made us dream, Giscard was an economics professor. Chirac is the cousin who has made good. His talent is feeling what concerns us, intuiting the demand of the moment. He doesn't have convictions, or if he does, they're not political ones - he has sentiments."

There are, of course, some constants, and they are to his credit. Mr Chirac, despite temptation, has never had any serious truck with the far right. He has always fought anti-semitism, and was the first French head of state to publicly recognise, in 1995, the responsibility of Vichy France in the Holocaust.

His wife, Bernadette, calls him "the St Bernard". Pompidou called him "the Bulldozer". Others have dubbed him "the Weathervane", even "Superliar". For his political victims, he is "the Killer". But whatever they know him as, there is now, after 40 years, a kind of compassion between the French and their head of state.

Is that enough? De Gaulle created postwar France; Pompidou modernised its industry; Giscard legalised abortion; Mitterrand abolished the death penalty, built monuments, reformed French capitalism, generally dragged the nation into the 20th century. And Mr Chirac?

"The president of proximity is not the president for posterity," says Mr Barbier. In 40 years in politics, he has left no permanent mark on France, done nothing about unemployment or undertaken any major reform beyond, perhaps, abolishing military service.

"He has, basically, done nothing," Mr Delais said. "But that's because he believes in nothing - except, perhaps, in the way we live in this country."

That's a nasty indictment, but sadly true. Chirac has never been interested in running the country, he just loves the campaigning and political fighting that goes with it. I think he was happy to be forced to share power for so long during in first term, in 1997-2002, when Jospin, the Socialist leader, was Prime Minister and held the effective executive power thanks to the socialist majority in Parliament. He had little responsibility, and could spend his time "presiding" (strutting on the world stage, meeting the French in all sorts of public events) and quietly undermining Jospin government at every turn, creating tensions in his Socialist-Communists-Greens "plural left" coalition whenever he could.

He has been unbelievably lucky most of his political life. In 1995, he was elected because people somehow felt that it was "his turn", after having wanted the job so badly for so long, and with no obvious alternative (the left was still reeling from the last, corrupt years of Mitterrand and the blame attached to the nasty recession of 1993). In 2002, despite having done nothing in 7 years, having presided over the disastrous Nice European Summit and generally undermined French influence in Brussels by his single-minded and despicable defense of French farmers (his first Cabinet job in 1967 was a Agricultural secretary, and that job has never left him), he was reelected because the hard left, part of the governing coalition but unhappy with the compromises that requires, fielded so many different candidates, who all seemed to be more against the "sold out centrist" Socialists that they ended up taking enough votes from Jospin that Le Pen swooped into the second round instead of him, and Chirac duly got elected in the second round.

He has since surfed on the popularity of his anti-Iraq War stance, despite having no substitute policy for the region, and no real vision beyond opposing the US.

France policy has drifted along, with no clear vision, torn between a system that obviously works well in some ways, needs reform in many other ways and faces the relentless pressure of the dominating Anglo-Saxon business-oriented English-speaking paradigm which spends a lot of time explaining how France is fucked up.

Chirac is not helping in protecting the things that deserve to be and reforming those that should - and could - be. He is just drifting along, enjoying his time in the limelight for the opportunity to be in the limelight, not to actually do something.

And you wonder why French people are grumpy.

Posted by Jérôme à Paris on March 15, 2005 at 10:44 UTC | Permalink


And you wonder why French people are grumpy.

Just the same way I can not exculpate the U.S. electorate for voting Bush, I can not exculpate France (or my country).

What I hate about Ghirac is his inconsistency. Against the imperial US project of war in Iraq, but in the next moment jumping in to help the US to discard the elected President in Haiti and beating on Syria for their role in Lebanon risking a new civil war there.

And don´t start me going on Iran where the Europeans seem to be ready to screw up the place by trying to negotiate away Irans right for a fuel cycle.

Posted by: b | Mar 15 2005 11:00 utc | 1

b - oh I don't exculpate the French - and neither do they! We're like an addict who knows that he needs to get rid of the addiction but does not do it.

In this case, it's more like smoking than a hard drug - something pleasant to you, good socially (although annoying to many), and nasty in the long run, and whose dangers you are fully aware of. Oh, we know!

Thanks to Fran for catching the Guardian article yesterday.

Posted by: Jérôme | Mar 15 2005 11:08 utc | 2

Bushco and Murdoch's English lackeys committed one major mistake when openly attacking not only France but Chirac directly. This is the kind of thing that backlashes in the local population, which would rather gather around the attacked leader - the same way the Guardian letter campaign to Ohio voters didn't help Kerry. Then, that's how Saddam and Milosevic kept power, and some even argue that Castro would be gone, if not for the US sanctions.

Posted by: Clueless Joe | Mar 15 2005 15:05 utc | 3

Chirac's the king of France (everyone needs a king, and I don't why). Only Royalists would regard Chirac as a usurper, and only then because they haven't accepted the political vicissitudes of the past 220 years. I notice that Chirac, unlike an ordinary Royalist, spent real time in the United States, working in a fast-food outlet and eventually hiring American political advisers to help him polish his delivery. Is this what enabled him to do such a good job on Operation Iraqi Freedom, an act exceeding his obligations as a king, for which we Americans will always owe him a debt of gratitude? It's pretty strange, and even a little humiliating, but undeniably true.

Posted by: alabama | Mar 15 2005 16:06 utc | 4

Grumpy, and none too proud.
The thieving Chirac was handily reelected president because the socialist candidate was knocked out of the presidential race by a fascist, borderline nazi candidate (I use both fascist and nazi in their literal, not inflammatory, understandings)!
Bear that in mind when you ponder France's role in Iraq and elsewhere.

PS: Word tried to make me capitalize nazi!

Posted by: guillaume | Mar 15 2005 16:48 utc | 5

Oh, for a president who does nothing!
Count your blessings, France!

Posted by: gylangirl | Mar 15 2005 16:53 utc | 6

guillaime, I'd say that Jospin lost the way Kerry lost: neither was convincingly regal.

Posted by: alabama | Mar 15 2005 17:04 utc | 7

guillaime, I'd say that Jospin lost the way Kerry lost: neither was convincingly regal.

Posted by: alabama | Mar 15 2005 17:05 utc | 8

weird, this double-posting....

Posted by: alabama | Mar 15 2005 17:11 utc | 9

Mimi, the 2nd grade teacher, asks the class:

So, class..who is the President of Switzerland?

Dead silence.

Mimi looks around expectantly and pulls a chopstick out of her topknot.

Finally, Thierry, who as been twitching, eagerly raises his hand.

I know it Mimi I know it.... it’s Chirac!

Nadia starts to giggle and soon half the class is laughing.

But no! Chirac is the president of FRANCE says Joe.


And thank our gracious stars for that. Now, class who is the President of Switzerland?

Dead silence.

Excellentamente! Class! No-one is supposed to know who the President of Switzerland is. I’m glad you don’t. I just looked it up this morning.. He has an executive function only....

Miss what’s da exeku-tif? Izzat like the tif of Titeuf?

tif = hair; Titeuf = cartoon character with pre-punk crest like Tintin.

Posted by: Blackie | Mar 15 2005 17:12 utc | 10

Very similar indeed. Kerry is however several notches superior to Jospin who clearly peaked at the cabinet level (to be generous) and was out of his league as a presidential candidate.

Posted by: Guillaume | Mar 15 2005 17:35 utc | 11

Guillaume: Does France actually have anyone who's in the league of presidential candidates?

Posted by: CluelessJoe | Mar 15 2005 23:04 utc | 12

I'm still betting on Chirac vs Jospin in 2007. But then I like Jospin...

The other likely contenders are Bayrou (the pro-European right-of-center UDF leader) and Sarkozy on the right, and Strauss-Kahn (the centrist former socialist finance minister), Hollande (the socialist party leader, still seen as too much of a wimpy apparatchik) and maybe Martine Aubry (the daughter of Jacques Delors and former Labor minsiter who introduced the 35 hour week laws under Jospin).

Of course Le Pen will still be around... With Chirac, Sarkozy and Bayrou in the running, he still has a chance to get to the second round. The Socialist candidate will get a very strong vote in the first round, with all lefties still feeling guilty for voting for fringe candidates back in 2002 and letting Le Pen overtake Jospin...

Posted by: Jérôme | Mar 15 2005 23:18 utc | 13

I'd say that Jospin lost the way Kerry lost: neither was convincingly regal.

I voted for Jospin... Lionel is a great person and a real humanitarian... Being a naturalized Frenchman, and a Socialist to boot, I really do not have much room in my heart for the party of DeGaul or LePen.... I put both of them really close to the Repigs we have in the USA... I still vote in the States also and will until they catch me voting in France... If they want my 'murican citizenship they are welcome to it... I have no desire ever to be an american again.... I will vote there until I am refused, and then will only vote in France...

At least our press seems to be honorable, not like the monkey shit in the states

KR Jackson
French National and Proud of it!

Posted by: Maheanuu | Mar 16 2005 1:38 utc | 14

that is just one of the many things I lika about Switzerland. If you ask people "name a politician or historical ruler from country x", most people will answer the name of the most horribly bloodsoaked leader that country ever produced. So I recon the lack of knowledge about swiss politicians or historical rulers to be a good thing.

Posted by: A swedish kind of death | Mar 16 2005 1:42 utc | 15

Jérôme, you might be happy to read that Chirac didn't make it into the top 10! In fact he is only 42nd of 100.

Forget Napoleon. France is celebrating a comedian and an actor in its '10 greatest'

Posted by: Fran | Mar 16 2005 5:53 utc | 16

I live in France and have not been able to access Daily Kos for many hours. Is it down? Has Chiraq blocked it because of Jerome's critical diary yesterday? Me without daly kos is like a drug addict without his fix. Is it down in the U.S.?

Posted by: LEP | Mar 16 2005 8:15 utc | 17

aemd posted the fix on the open thread. Thanks.

Posted by: LEP | Mar 16 2005 9:20 utc | 18

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