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The house that Jacques Chirac built

16 May 07 08:19 GMT
By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, Paris

Nicolas Sarkozy is officially taking office as France's new president, replacing centre-right Gaullist Jacques Chirac, who has run the country for 12 years.

Now 74, Mr Chirac first became a government minister some 40 years ago and has been a part of French public life ever since for better or for worse.

So what state does he leave France in at home and abroad?

Le Monde's cartoonist Plantu, whom Mr Chirac has provided with endless raw material over the years, said that, in an odd and almost inexplicable way, the French will miss him - even if they are looking forward to having a new generation in the Elysee Palace.

"Jacques Chirac will leave his mark as a man the French liked. It's incredible," he said.

"Everyone was under his spell. They all say 'he's lovely - he's funny - he's charming' and that's one reason I never wanted to meet him.

"People are strange - because at the same time, they grumble that Mr Chirac is a crook, and that, as mayor of Paris, he cooked the books to help fund his centre-right RPR political party.

"But then they shrug and say: 'Ah well, in his position I'd probably have done the same thing'."

Scandal-ridden charmer

Mr Chirac has long proved a potent force in French politics - as a handsome young man, cigarette dangling from one hand, a glass of beer in the other, he fought his way into parliament in the rural constituency of Correze.

He charmed the French people into voting for him with his ability to empathise and press the flesh with conviction, whether with farmers, young women or business leaders.

His first ministerial job was back in 1967, under Georges Pompidou, and there are few government positions he has not held at one time or another.

Later, as mayor of Paris for almost two decades from 1977 to 1995, he was dogged by scandal over party financing and personal expenses, with his closest ally Alain Juppe being convicted a few years ago of using Parisian taxpayers' money to fund RPR party workers disguised as town hall employees.

But that did not stop Jacques Chirac winning the presidency in 1995, taking over at the Elysee Palace from Francois Mitterrand to cheers and jubilation on the right, after beating the Socialist Lionel Jospin.

He won again in 2002, against all the odds and the hostile opinion polls, thanks to Mr Le Pen's shock entry into the second round.


The French sniffed that they had the choice between voting for a crook or voting for a fascist, with some Socialist voters pictured going to the polls with pegs on their noses to symbolise their disgust.

Mr Chirac still won his second and now final term.

"There is a certain sense of nostalgia, now the man is nearly out," said Dominique Moisi, senior fellow at the IFRI Foreign Affairs Institute in Paris.

"And a sense of lost opportunity. He failed to reconcile the French with politics. There were scandals, there was a sense of alienation between the people and the political centre.

"And, more fundamentally, he failed to reform France or bring France in tune with modernity. But on the positive side, he will be remembered as the man who said 'no' to the war in Iraq, and the man who reconciled the French with their WWII past.

"But somehow, Jacques Chirac failed with the present, and succeeded with the past."

Opposing Iraq

As president, Jacques Chirac always looked happiest on the world stage, forcibly putting France's point of view.

He continued President Mitterrand's legacy of seeing Africa as France's backyard, and tried to repair French relations with its former colonies.

On the Middle East, he ensured that France remained an influence on its old colonies there - Lebanon and Syria - while trying to make sure that his nation kept a voice in the Middle East peace process.

And of course, in 2003, he said "no" to the war in Iraq.

That French "no" to the war frayed relations with the US and Britain, most of all with President George W Bush, leaving bilateral ties in a fragile state for his successor.

Mr Chirac was long against a world influenced by one global hyper-power, especially a power run by George W Bush.

Marc Epstein, foreign editor of the centrist L'Express magazine, said that at a human level, the two leaders were never destined to be friends.

"You cannot imagine two men more different. Mr Bush is a reformed alcoholic, who believes in God and preaches at people.

"Mr Chirac is someone who likes to have a good time, have a few beers, and he is on the record as saying transparency in politics doesn't matter. The two men are polar opposites."

Yet Mr Chirac also leaves behind tensions over Europe.

He liked the idea of the EU - especially a union dominated by France and Germany.

But he disliked Europe's enlargement to the east to include nations such as Poland and the Czech Republic, whom he saw as Washington and London's Trojan horse, working towards an EU that was more a free market, and less a political counterweight to the might of the US.

2005 also brought its own European humiliation for Jacques Chirac, when his disgruntled nation said its own firm "non" to the EU constitutional treaty.

"Chirac leaves France in a weaker position in Europe, and it's undeniable that today there is less France in Europe and as a result, there is less Europe in the world," believes Dominique Moisi.

But if Chirac's "no" to Iraq is still widely admired at home, his domestic triumphs have been few and far between.

Loveable rogue

After 12 years in power, he leaves behind high unemployment, low economic growth and a generous welfare system that tomorrow's France can ill-afford, as well as increasing divides between the cities and the suburbs, the "haves" and the "have-nots" of French society.

"He had a mandate to reform and did not use it. One of the reasons is that, in some ways, he is a man of another generation, a 'socialist radical', a man of the third or fourth republic - a man suspicious of globalisation and of the market," says Moisi.

Yet even those who clearly saw Mr Chirac's weaknesses throughout his long career agree that the nation still feels a surprising fondness for the loveable rogue who just kept on being elected - even if today's France, the house that Jacques built, is gradually falling apart.

"I'll miss Chirac in the same way you'd miss your granddad who used to nick the cash you left in the kitchen," said Le Monde's cartoonist Plantu.

"He was a nice bloke. Even if when you open the kitchen drawers, you discover they're empty. And as for the rest of the house - well, there's water leaking down the walls of the living room, cracks everywhere, and a hole in the roof. But Jacques Chirac was a nice bloke."

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