Jim Hoagland on the fall of a gregarious Frenchman

By Jim Hoagland
Sunday, November 1, 2009

Old age is a shipwreck.

-- Charles de Gaulle

Revolutions notoriously eat their children. But France's political system reserves its sharpest cruelties for elderly politicians as they fall from favor, as de Gaulle learned in 1968. Now it is the turn of former president Jacques Chirac, who was ordered on Friday at age 76 to stand trial on corruption charges.

Let's be honest. Many Americans will be delighted. They remember only Chirac's final, bitter years in power, when he fought the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq and set out to build "multipolar" coalitions of nations to reduce U.S. "hegemony" now and forever.

But this is far from being the whole story of Chirac, a truly likable man who was a bundle of debilitating contradictions and worthy impulses. Despite his political war with Washington and George W. Bush, Chirac is also the most American of all the French politicians I have ever met.

His gregarious nature, big, rubbery features and boisterous embrace of friends always made me think of Lyndon Johnson working a room of rivals in Washington or John Wayne striding through the saloon doors. Often, whether we met at the Paris City Hall, the presidential palace or the United Nations, Chirac would talk about how he had fallen in love with my country, and one of its pretty young girls, when he was a teenager.

He worked one summer as a soda jerk at a Howard Johnson's. The romance with the young lady did not last, but his American tastes endured. He once asked me at a group luncheon in a New York restaurant to order the wine since he was sticking with Budweiser.

So perhaps it should come as no surprise that he faces trial on allegations that he ran the Paris mayor's office from 1977 to 1995 much like Tammany Hall or the Daley machine in Chicago. The prosecutor, who was constitutionally prohibited from going after Chirac during his two presidential terms from 1995 to 2007, now alleges that the ex-president's party machine created 21 -- yes, 21 -- fictitious jobs for its workers with Chirac's knowledge.

For all its American echoes, the historic first prosecution of a former French president is an indelibly Gallic affair. It is a shipwreck not just of an aging politico who has lived rent-free in a Lebanese politician's spacious Paris apartment since leaving office, but also of the country's campaign finance system and the clans that manipulated it for personal gain. It is a tale of brutal personal conflicts over money, power and pride out of Balzac or, had he been French, Shakespeare.

The trial of Chirac could still be blocked by a procedural appeal. But his legacy is already being tarnished in other courtroom brawls. His former right-hand man, Charles Pasqua, was sentenced to a year in jail last week for taking bribes while interior minister. Pasqua immediately suggested that Chirac had secretly initiated the prosecution years ago to block him from running against Chirac for president.

At almost the same time, prosecutors were demanding the conviction of Chirac's former prime minister and political heir, Dominique de Villepin, on charges of having conspired to falsify documents intended to end the political career of Nicolas Sarkozy, who succeeded Chirac as president two years ago and who has vowed to hang "on a butcher's hook" those who plotted against him.

It does not, if you can believe it, end there: Chirac is known as "le grand absent" of the Clearstream trial (named after the Luxembourg bank where Sarkozy and others were falsely alleged to have their secret accounts) since the ex-president's fury at Sarkozy is widely assumed to have been the driving force behind Villepin's alleged campaign of calumny. Sarkozy was originally a Chirac political protege and was romantically linked with Chirac's daughter. He dumped both to pursue his own career, and Chirac is said to have never forgiven him.

Politics is even more personal in France than in many other countries. The French, bless them, never really outgrow the drive to demonstrate that they are the smartest, or at least the cleverest, kids in the classroom and then in the office. Challenge that core notion, and you are in for friction or more.

I told Chirac and Villepin in late January 2003 that their hopes of stopping the Bush administration from invading Iraq would be too little, too late. They scoffed at my lack of sophistication: The invasion would produce disaster and therefore would not be launched. Unfortunately, I was right, and they were only half right.


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