“Neither of the presidents has served two terms after Jacques Chirac, Macron won’t win either”
Political expert Igor Ignatchenko on the last French neo-Gaullist’s free foreign policy and corruption scandals
It became known about ex-President of France Jacques Chirac’s death on 26 September. The legendary politician is considered to be a personification of the independent Fifth Republic free of external pressure. In a talk with Realnoe Vremya, Assistant Professor in the Institute for Social Sciences at RANEPA, expert in contemporary politics and history of Western European countries Igor Ignatchenko dispelled the myth about the former French leader’s Russophile moods. The interlocutor explained what factors Vladimir Putin’s participation in the funeral depended on and said about possible reasons for Chirac’s involvement in corruption schemes.
“Jacques Chirac is one of the last representatives of neo-Gaullism”
Mr Ignatchenko, what can we consider as Jacques Chirac’s main accomplishments for the French state and the people?
His most memorable action from a perspective of the development of French foreign politics and probably that matters the most to Moscow was during the period of aggression, the intervention in Iraq in 2003 when France, Germany and Russia in fact united for a moment and expressed their position that was different from that of the USA, which is the global hegemon nowadays. It was, undoubtedly, a memorable moment in terms of the prestige of French diplomacy: even if it was considered hostile by Chirac’s political opponents in certain international circles, it is a remembrance of the French Republic, about the independence of the course of foreign politics.
As for the development of domestic politics, of course, here everything is more complicated. There were fewer notable successes, victories. There was a lot of corruption scandals during Chirac’s presidency, and even he was involved in some of them when he was Paris mayor (Editor’s Note: from 1997 to 1995). Indeed, there were a lot of scandals of this kind during his two presidential terms (Editor’s Note: from 1995 to 2002 and from 2002 to 2007), including Sarkozy (Editor’s Note: during Jacques Chirac’s presidency, 23rd President of the French Republic Nicolas Sarkozy was in the French government). Moreover, Sarkozy participated in many corruption schemes or his trace was found there, his name was mentioned during investigations. This is why from a perspective of the development of domestic politics, it is hard to single out some notable victories.
Precisely in 2002 there was a surge of far-right moods in France, and Jean-Marie Le Pen made it to the final of the presidential election. It was the end of Jacques Chirac’s first presidential term, and Chirac got the second term, of course, thanks to the mobilisation of society because of the arrival of the far-right leader
What interesting is that with the absence of special achievements in domestic politics, some French mass media are now comparing Jacques Chirac with Charles de Gaulle. Do you think these comparisons are correct?
During his rule, by the way, one should pay attention to the fact that precisely in 2002 there was a surge of far-right moods in France, and Jean-Marie Le Pen made it to the final of the presidential election. It was the end of Jacques Chirac’s first presidential term, and Chirac got the second term, of course, thanks to the mobilisation of society because of the arrival of the far-right leader. This in itself means that his first term of the rule wasn’t highly appraised by the French.
The development of French domestic politics under Chirac was complicated because he was the president, and the prime minister was a socialist. It was quite hard to make effective decisions in the conditions of a two-party political system because approaches of the traditional right, centre-right wing and socialists, undoubtedly, were different in all domestic and foreign political issues. Peaceful co-existence was the issue, which determined the development of domestic politics of France and the absence of vivid recollection in many ways. Probably the unexpected surge of far-right leanings in French society caused Chirac’s ineffective politics during the first term is the vivid recollection.
At the same time, we should keep in mind that Jacques Chirac is probably one of the last representatives of neo-Gaullism, that’s to say, representatives of the old French political school, the last mastodon if you like. Now, or even since Jacques Chirac left the post of the president there hasn’t been such a character on the political horizon.
The problem was that many moderately right politicians in France participated in corruption schemes, and it was mainly linked with the election system in France in general when one had to find money for an election campaign. Machinations appeared. If we look at the history of the Fifth Republic, especially right politicians committed a lot of sins
“After Chirac, all figures of the French political landscape turned out very small”
What did contemporary French society think of Chirac in the last years? It is noteworthy how his honourary status after leaving the post of president (life-long membership in the Constitutional Council of France) combined in ordinary French people’s consciousness with a conviction in 2011 for creating fake jobs when he was the Paris mayor (Chirac was found guilty and charged with a two-year conditional discharge)?
It seems to me that when quite a big politician — especially in comparison with the modern-day ones — dies, a good image is left, while negative moments disappear. The problem was that many moderately right politicians in France participated in corruption schemes, and it was mainly linked with the election system in France in general when one had to find money for an election campaign. Machinations appeared. If we look at the history of the Fifth Republic, especially right politicians committed a lot of sins. The left part of French society, which is traditionally strong in France, and the Socialists who were in power criticised Chirac and all right politicians. This is why a part of French society will remember Chirac with more criticism because it is its traditional thinking.
It is quite hard to say how big this part is, as, for instance, the last presidential election showed that left ideas in France calmed down a bit, we can rather talk about a conglomerate of some political powers and groups working on the left side. On the one hand, the brightest character is Jean-Luc Mélenchon, on the other hand, it is the Socialists who haven’t updated their political programme yet and this is why they aren’t so popular. There is also a movement of ecologists that is gaining momentum, which was seen in the election to the European Parliament. But I wouldn’t say it is half of society.
In general we can say that Chirac’s character in French society was and is still respectable. Of course, there will always be found reasons for accusations, there will always be discontent people about any presidential period, but it seems to me that in general he was considered a kind of patriarch of French politics at least until recently when he was alive.
Neither of the presidents has had two terms after Jacques Chirac: neither Sarkozy nor Hollande have, and Macron is unlikely to win the second term either. The era ended, I think, we can say this way
After Chirac, all figures of the French political landscape turned out very small, insignificant and constantly substituting each other and unmemorable in general. Jacques Chirac had some charisma, and the fact that he stayed for two terms means a lot. None of the presidents has had two terms after Jacques Chirac: neither Sarkozy nor Hollande, and Macron is unlikely to win the second term. The era ended, I think, we can say this way.
The migration issue, which has been more topical for all Europe and especially for France in the last years, is interesting too. Its foundation began to be laid precisely during Chirac’s presidency. Isn’t he partly held accountable for the current period of crisis?
I think it is an old story anyway, and French society forgot that remote past a long time ago. The main impetus, a surge of migration moods arose with the Arab Spring, it is the events in 2011-2013, which have nothing to do with Chirac’s presidency.
In fact, I think that the current migration crisis isn’t considered thoroughly from a historical perspective. It is rather a matter of the last years, mainly linked with other countries’ campaigns in foreign politics. I don’t think that Chirac’s figure is directly connected with the memories of the migration crisis in France.
Chirac acted as a right traditionalist, I wouldn’t say he was a devoted Russophile, he was a moderate pragmatist, a politician who, undoubtedly, defended French interests, while in those conditions a union with Russia was a need
“Putin’s presence in Jacques Chirac’s funeral might be undesirable for the French side”
Some experts call Jacques Chirac a Russophile citing some of his words about Russia considering his fluent Russian, his meetings with the Russian president. Formulations “Putin’s idol” have already made headlines in the mass media. Do you think these statements are reasonable?
I think that Chirac is, first of all, Francophile, and, undoubtedly, he gave France’s interests pride of place. That he paid attention to Russia and considered Russia a key player when settling this issue during the Iraqi crisis is mainly explained by respect for the Soviet Union first, despite the rejection of its political order, and then Russia, which is characteristic for French right politicians.
In general traditions matter to all right politicians in France, while traditions, for instance, are linked with the Russian-French union in the late 19th century, Russia’s involvement in the First World War when Russians soldiers saved France in many ways. This historical tradition, which dates back to the pre-Soviet history, is very important. And in this respect, traditional right politicians consider Russia as an ally. We can also see now that Macron has to take Russia into account despite his initial statements about the rejection of rapprochement. We see the opposite things.
For this reason, we can say that Chirac acted as a right traditionalist, I wouldn’t say he was a devoted Russophile, he was a moderate pragmatist, a politician who, undoubtedly, defended French interests, while in those conditions a union with Russia was a need. Moreover, it was necessary to defend the interests of the French company Total S.A., which was subject to a certain attack of American and British oil companies, while Russia was an ally for quite pragmatic reasons.
Talking about the presence of the Russian delegation in the funeral, this will, undoubtedly, depend on agreements with the French side, the readiness of the French side and its desire to receive the Russian leader in this funeral if its scale increases. This matter will be linked with a decision of the Élysée Palace
How will the farewell ceremony look according to Jacques Chirac’s position and image in French society’s consciousness? What is the probability of holding the official ceremony with foreign delegations and presence of officials including the Russian president?
Logically, this funeral must be as solemn as possible, as the president of the French Republic is buried. But given the management style of current French President Macron, the scale of the funeral might be lowered by explaining it with the necessity to cut the budget, costs. In general Macron is setting new rules in the management style, this is why whatever can be expected. If the traditional right-wing had been in power, Chirac’s funeral would have been as solemn and fancy as possible.
Talking about the presence of the Russian delegation in the funeral, this will, undoubtedly, depend on agreements with the French side, the readiness of the French side and its desire to receive the Russian leader in this funeral if its scale goes up. This matter will be linked with a decision of the Élysée Palace. I think it is unlikely but possible. If the funeral has a less official character, it is quite possible (Editor’s Note: the Russian president will be there). If it is more official, it isn’t excluded that Putin’s presence in Jacques Chirac’s funeral might be undesirable for the French side. All turns on the agreements at the top level.