“All political careers end in failure,” a British statesman once wisely said. Judging by the wreckage of the famous political career that ended this week, he was even wiser than he knew. With the election of a new president of France on Sunday, the lengthy professional life of Jacques Chirac — French president for 12 years, mayor of Paris for 18 years, twice French prime minister for a total of four years — comes to a grinding halt, apparently to the great relief of his compatriots.
In the coming weeks, there will be plenty of time to discuss the virtues and vices of his successor, President-elect Nicolas Sarkozy. But before Chirac fades from the scene altogether — or before he becomes embroiled in corruption investigations — I’d like to take this opportunity to recall some of the highlights of his diplomatic career. Many Americans know him only as the man who made the right decision about Iraq, albeit for the wrong reasons. But try, if you can, to leave Iraq aside: Chirac’s more important diplomatic legacy lies elsewhere.
Ponder closely, for example, what Chirac has had to say on Africa, where his country has enormous influence, in many places far outweighing ours: During a visit to the Ivory Coast, Chirac once called “multi-partyism” a “kind of luxury,” which his host, president-for-life Fèlix Houphouet-Boigny, clearly could not afford. During a visit to Tunisia, he proclaimed that since “the most important human rights are the rights to be fed, to have health, to be educated and to be housed,” Tunisia’s human rights record is “very advanced” — never mind the police who beat up dissidents. “Africa is not ready for democracy,” he told a group of African leaders in the early 1990s. On Britain: “The only thing they have ever done for European agriculture is mad cow disease . . . You can’t trust people who cook as badly as that.”
On Russia: “For his contribution to friendship between France and Russia,” Chirac decorated Vladimir Putin last year with the highest order of the Legion d’Honneur, a medal reserved for the closest foreign friends of France (Churchill, Eisenhower) despite the deterioration of the Russian president’s human rights record. A few weeks later, Chirac decided to hold his 74th birthday party in Riga, Latvia, after a NATO summit. He invited President Putin, disinvited President Bush and snubbed the Latvian president in the process. As the diplomatic scandal grew, the guests all begged off, and the birthday dinner never took place.
On Saddam Hussein: “You are my personal friend. Let me assure you of my esteem, consideration and bond.” On Eastern Europe supporting the United States in the United Nations: “It is not really responsible behavior. It is not well brought-up behavior. They missed a good opportunity to shut up.” On Iran’s nuclear program: “Having one or perhaps a second bomb a little later, well, that’s not very dangerous.” Theoretically, Chirac was supposed to be negotiating with Iran to give up its nuclear program at the time.
On hearing a French business executive address a European summit in English: “deeply shocked,” he stormed out of the room.
As I say, it’s an important legacy: one of consistent scorn for the Anglo-American world in general and the English language in particular; of suspicion of Central Europe and profound disinterest in the wave of democratic transformation that swept the world in the 1980s and 1990s; of preference for the Arab and African dictators who had been, and remained, clients of France. In his later years, Chirac constantly searched, in almost all international conflicts, for novel ways of opposing the United States. All along, he did his best to protect France from the rapidly changing global economy.
It was, in other words, the legacy of a man who was deeply conservative, almost Brezhnevite in his view of the world — so much so that the word most often used to describe his political beliefs is “stagnation.” But as he leaves office, the loudest condemnation of his 12 years as head of state comes not from the outside world but from the French themselves. Don’t listen to me, listen to them: After all, it is they who have just elected a man who promised to “break with the ideas, the habits and the behavior of the past.”
“The French people have chosen change,” Sarkozy declared during his acceptance speech Sunday night. “I will implement that change.” And what they want, it seems, is a change from Chirac.