The most prominent political figures in the history of continental Europe are paradoxically loved and hated at the same time. From Napoleon to Charles de Gaulle, from the founder of the Turkish Republic Mustafa Kemal Atatürk to the first promoter of what is now called the European Union, Winston Churchill. Napoleon himself wrote that “Great men are meteors designed to burn so that earth may be lighted.” A surely crude image which unmasks the inevitable fate of great political leaders of being hated, the cost of donating their life to creating the good for the people, for the continent, and in the case of Jacques Chirac for their Nation and for Europe.
During his political career, Jacques Chirac put on many different masks, dealing with communists, right wing and left wing political figures such as Georges Pompidou, Charles de Gaulle, Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande. Chirac also worked closely with fellow European heads of States, and with International leaders, fuelling the transatlantic relations without bending to the influence of the American allies. He also encouraged relations with African countries, and was personally extremely cultured and enthusiast of the African culture. Mr. Chirac never hided his persona, and always showed consistency in his long political life. A “United Europe of States”, a non-violent international approach, and policies enhancing French agriculture remain the most successful heritage the late President left to France and to the European Union.
A United Europe of States.
Initiating his political career as a firm Eurosceptic, Mr. Chirac followed the inverse path of many 21st-century European politicians. As he started as an anti-Europe Communist student, he ended as a Liberal conservatist pro-Europe. At the aftermath of his passing, many remember his bad relations with the United Kingdom. However, a challenging Cross-Channel relation was certainly not an element characteristic specifically to the Chirac governments, but started way before the 1066’ Battle of Hastings and carries on still today, with Brexit deteriorating relations not only with the European Union, but also with France. Of course, Mr. Chirac would not have supported Brexit. He firmly believed in European values and Principles. A strong advocate of the Maastricht Treaty and of the 2005 French European Constitution referendum and Treaty establishing a Constitution for Europe, Mr. Chirac pushed for a strong European alliance, which would be able to compete at the global level.
In Chirac’s own words, “Europe is not destined to become a vast free trade area diluted in the globalized economy. Europe is first and foremost a political project based on common values — a project based on rules, on pooled resources, on cooperation and on common policies.”. A view that may not have been understood by French citizens in 2005, when they voted down French European Constitution in a referendum, but his long-term vision of the European Union would have an a-temporal aspect until today, where pro-European entities are advocating those same battles fought by Mr. Chirac on the first line more than a decade ago. The late President of the French Republic might have been less ambitious than Winston Churchill, who would have rather preferred a “United States of Europe”, but his devotion to European values ultimately shaped his career and the continent in a more concrete manner.
The War in Iraq.
Although he has been criticized for a variety of reasons, everyone recognizes his success in not bringing France to war during the United States’ invasion of Iraq. Indeed, while in office, Mr. Chirac always kept an internationalist approach, but without ever advocating for war. At a time when the United States’ hegemony was at its peak, Mr. Chirac led – not solely France – a coalition of multiple countries within the European Union to not participate into sending armies to Iraq. That same political period was characterized by deep divisions in the country between left and right, but even within the right on certain matters, the invasion of Iraq being one of them. A year earlier to the Iraqi invasion, the young elected National Assembly under Jean-Pierre Raffarin – Mr. Chirac’s appointee Prime Minister – started discussing the abolition of wearing of Islamic head scarves and other religious symbols in public schools.
This would then become law in 2004, but the two years that preceded it were rather tense, with numerous threats from Islamic extremists, who even abducted two French journalists in Iraq. Despite all of this, Mr. Chirac managed not to make France responsible for the invasion in Iraq, which still costs the United States a lot of credibility on the international arena up to today. Notably, he has condemned war for its dramatic consequences: “War is always the worst solution. France, which is not a pacifist country who does not refuse war in principle and which has proven it elsewhere being. Currently the first contributor of forces of NATO, notably in the Balkans, France is not a pacifist country, but France considers war to be the last stage of a process that all means have to have been used to avoid it, due to its dramatic consequences”.
Chirac and the Farmers.
As French President, Chirac could not abstain from being active on the international arena, continuing France’s legacy of being a truly international European actor. However, during his political career, Mr. Chirac always expressed his closeness to farmers. As former Minister of Agriculture – his first ministerial post – he has maintained his passion and respect for such an important role. He has given a huge help both at a national and European level to enhance agriculture. Particularly, Mr. Chirac helped French farmers in poorer agricultural landscapes, like the ones on the mountains, to enhance their activity and increase productivity. He has attended a series of times the annual French annual farmers’ fair, where he would not hide from the people, merging in the crowds and successfully appearing as one of them, an unusual success for any right-wing politician coming from a capital city.
But Mr. Chirac brought farmers’ issues not only to the Élysée, but also on the European stage. For example, in 2002 he worked closely with the then Chancellor of Germany Gerhard Schröder to reform the European Union agriculture policy, which is still referred to today. In that occasion, he managed to set a ceiling on farm spending. His defense vis-à-vis the European Union’s £30 billion a year Common Agricultural Policy triggered the fury of various allies, but that did not stop him. Particularly, Tony Blair’s government expressed a lot of anger on that issue, which pushed Mr. Chirac’s critics to condemn his bad relations with the United Kingdom.
A people’s person
A politician should be judged by what his population says about him, and Mr. Chirac surely has received a lot of positive words from his population. For example in Ussel, a small village in the centre of France, home to less than 10.000 inhabitants, held a memorial of the late President. Villagers shared their positive memories on Mr. Chirac during their annual agriculture fair. They remember him as a people’s person, extremely approachable, who had always time to speak with everyone. This year’s attendees of the Ussel annual agriculture fair expressed their warmth towards Mr. Chirac, as did all the politicians who worked with him during his long political career.
Mr. Chirac’s legal issues, the criticisms of his trans-Atlantic foreign politics often referred to as deteriorating the US-France relationship and the innumerous accusations on his private life cannot cancel the political abilities he maintained throughout his life. The late French President managed to maintain integrity while changing political parties and political allies during his career, he did not hesitate to step down when he saw it would do good to his people, and was a proud bulldozer (as referred as by Mr. Pompidou) when he knew he could do good for his nation and for his people. He managed to balance the too often unscrupulous political landscape with values, while being able to speak with figures from all political factions and to all French voters. A great man in his actions, who ‘walked the talk’. Something politics cannot do without.
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Autore dell’articolo* Sam Andrea Williams , Studente in ‘International Relations’ alla University of Kent, nonché visiting student presso la Bogazici Universitesi, Istanbul. Come sempre pubblichiamo i nostri lavori per stimolare altre riflessioni, che possano portare ad integrazioni e approfondimenti.
* i contenuti e le valutazioni dell’intervento sono di esclusiva responsabilità dell’autore