Of course, directing civil servants to perform political tasks can hardly be compared to collaborating with the Nazis, and Chirac’s crime was endemic to French politics until political campaigning was cleaned up by law. In other words, if Petain is the tragedy, Chirac is the farce — the one who was caught and made an example of when countless others could have been used just as well.
Nevertheless, the two men appear as similar characters in a decidedly French narrative of national humiliation as a consequence of personal ambition, greed and ineptitude. (One has the feeling, for instance, that these are exactly the types of figures you’d expect to get if Maupassant’s Georges Duroy or Stendhal’s Julien Sorel ever decided to run for president.)
At the same time, a key component of this shared narrative is its third and final act. After all, just as Petain’s death sentence was never carried out because of his age, Chirac’s two-year sentence was suspended on account of his health and what doctors deemed his failing memory. The idea, it seems, is that an embarrassed afterlife is punishment enough, with the real penance being not a sentence, which can be commuted, but rather an ultimate verdict on one’s life, which never can.
With the latest installment of his memoirs — translated into English by Catherine Spencer as “My Life in Politics” — Chirac has done his best to appeal the verdict that seems to have branded him a crook, a fraud and, worse, an embarrassment to the country he spent his life serving. Ultimately, he has failed at this enterprise, and, if anything, we emerge from his recollections with scorn rather than sympathy.
This has nothing to do with the magnitude of Chirac’s wrongdoing; after all, there’s much to praise about the man who — along with Dominique de Villepin, then France’s minister of foreign affairs — called a spade a spade and refused to condone the American invasion of Iraq even as he bent over backward to preserve the Franco-German entente, the foundation of European unity. Chirac also deserves credit for being the first French president to acknowledge France’s national culpability in the crimes of the Holocaust.
Rather, the failure of “My Life in Politics” — and in some sense, its success — stems from the unwitting access it provides to the animating convictions that have motivated Chirac throughout his tarnished career. What this book ultimately confirms isn’t his virtue — of which there is at least something to be said — but his obsession with his own image.