Jacques Chirac Bows Out
Arab-Muslim tyrants channel public discontent into an ever-boiling cauldron of Jew-hatred, sophisticated Europeans serve America to hungry citizens like foie gras on toast. Meanwhile, back at the Palais...
At 8 PM (prime time news) on the 8th of March, a wilted President Jacques Chirac solemnly informed his compatriots that
1. He loves them dearly and
2. He will not be running for a third term.
Do not imagine any cause and effect link between the two propositions. He did not say anything about handing over the keys of the State to Nicolas Sarkozy. He did utter abundant platitudes about global warming, multiculturalism, French glory, the French social model, France's Europe, peace and more peace. He warned against extremisms and anti-isms.
Lean fare but nothing is too vapid for the talking mouths. They have been stuttering ever since the eminently unawaited Thursday evening speech.
Generally speaking, here's how it goes: the commentator, suppressing a gulp, acknowledges the strong emotional charge of the speech, further intensified by the President's characteristic reserve. "He does not like to display his feelings."
Why should he? If you could sit atop the chariot of French glory and wave your hands, discretely, to an admiring world, would you snivel or chuckle from the depths of your heart?
The rare occasion when Chirac did not keep his emotions in check-a temper tantrum in Israel-is carried over into the credit column. Chirac, who is addicted to adoring crowds, went into a fury against the agents assigned to protect him as he walked through a tense, narrow East Jerusalem street. No multicultural respect for the Other-in-all-his-diversity there. It was France versus Israel and the game, as replayed in this week's retrospectives, was a clear victory for Chirac.
But that tasty little morsel was hors d'oeuvres to the spring 2003 world championship event on the grounds of the UNSC. Here's how it goes: the talking mouth stumbles and bumbles, trying to comment on an adieu speech whose lines dissolve in the mouth like cotton candy if you make the mistake of quoting them. OK, so how about summing up Chirac's brilliant 42-year career in politics?
The beginning is neat. Pompidou, looking like a pompadour, spins him onto the political stage from a base in Corr√®ze, ah Corr√®ze, its vachement cows, its jovial peasants, its earthy earth, its heavenly skies. And Chirac, smooth and youthful with a smart fedora and an old fashioned cigarette. The rises and falls, the electoral victories and defeats, the alliances and betrayals make a fine story of political adventure. The problem is, Chirac was mayor of Paris for so long it hurts. And the scandals he generated make Tammany Hall look like a boy scout troop.
Many otherwise well-informed Americans think that as soon as Jacquot stops being president he is going to be sent to prison without passing Go. No, my friends, it just won't happen. Ex-French presidents do leave the office and the palace in which it is exercised but they are forever draped in the toga of the institution. That's how a political commentator close to the palace explained it: Chirac cannot be judged for irregularities (that is, using the ornate H√¥tel de Ville [Paris City Hall] as a fund raiser for his conquest of the Elys√©es) because it would be a crime of l√®se majest√© against the institution. The ex-president, you see, is contiguous with the institution, and the institution is above the law.
He won't go to jail. My bet is he'll go to the UN. But let's go back to the talking mouth.
He (meaning he or she) stutters and ahems, trying to repress the nasty thoughts about Chirac churning in his head, and suddenly his face brightens, his eyes light up, and he sings the praises of le pr√©sident de la R√©publique who had the courage and foresight to keep la France out of the terrible misadventure in Iraq. And the trumpets blare. He tried to warn Boouuusssshhh to no avail and we see today that he was right, he was wise, he was perspicacious, he was courageous. The whole world recognizes his brilliant diplomatic exploit. He is admired by Arab leaders, adored by the Arab street, cherished in Africa, respected in Brussels, envied in London...and that's not all...he is admired, cherished, respected, and recognized in the United States of America where citizens are increasingly furious over the mess in Iraq.
Ras l'bol [I'm fed up]. We are not your whipping boy! You can add up all the mistakes in Iraq and tuck them into Chirac's handkerchief pocket and there will still be a three-piece suite to chalk up with his domestic and international failings.
The joke is, all these TV retrospectives in which Chirac's imbroglios are barely mentioned and his brilliant anti-war strategy is spotlighted until it hurts your eyes, can't manage to find any foreign personality to interview on the subject of Jacques Chirac's brilliant foreign policy. They stick to the home front, quote his political cronies or rivals, quote each other, and let it go at that. Everyone talks in whispers as if he were on his deathbed. It's so oppressive that I feel guilty for being so insolent.
And it's true, you should think twice before shooting spitballs at political figures. They work hard to get elected, they work hard to stay in office, they shoulder heavy responsibilities and even if they have sloping shoulders, something remains. I wouldn't have gone out of my way to criticize Jacques Chirac if he hadn't worn anti-Bush peace mongering as a diamond stickpin in his less than brilliant career.
He warned us not to go into Iraq and now he can say I told you so? Well I warned ["A Nation of Priests"] France that cowardice is not a new form of courage, and now look what's become of la gloire fran√ßaise, not to mention the economy. That's Chirac's legacy: he used France's UN veto as blackmail, yellowed out on one of the first big battles against global jihad, and has been bragging about it forever since.
The Big Question was: "Will he anoint his dauphin?" Ha! After making us wait for a year with baited breath to find out if he intended to run for a third term and grand total of 17 years as president (the term was reduced from 7 to 5 years during his reign) he will now keep us breathless for another week. Of course the opinion-makers are not breathless, they are talking a blue streak. He didn't anoint Sarkozy. Maybe he's going to throw his support to Bayrou. His warnings about extremism, exclusion, rejection of the Other were clearly aimed at Sarkozy. He handed Sarkozy his job description. I expect you to do this and that and that and this.
And this is supposed to be a democracy? Even if the president takes himself for a king-after all, he lives in a palace-does everyone have to follow suit? In a democracy you are elected, you serve your term, and you go on your way. You don't hand the crown and scepter to the next in line. Sarkozy has been pretty smooth about this last bitchy insult from a has-been before his time. He let it be understood that in a democracy you don't have heirs to the throne, but he didn't want to be nasty, so he accepted the term "successor."
Monsieur le Pr√©sident has indicated that he will announce his eventual benediction on March 19th when the official list of candidates is established. Thanks a lot. If his good wishes were worth anything, he should have expressed them on January 14th when Nicolas Sarkozy won the presidential nomination by a margin of 85% of the card-carrying UMP membership. And Chirac couldn't give him a pat on the shoulder and slip into the background?
Take you own good time, Jacques Chirac. Meanwhile, History will judge your moment of anti-war "glory." I wouldn't bank on your chances of making it to the finals.
For Nidra Poller's previous profiles of the candidates for the French presidency after 12 years of Chirac see: