Jacques Chirac, the former French president and mayor of Paris, is the first head of state to have been tried and convicted in France since Philippe Petain, the head of the infamous Vichy government, was sentenced to death in August 1945.
As disgraced leaders of a nation that turned on them in their old ages with fiery vitriol, the two indeed have painful similarities: Petain, at the time of his trial, was 89, a once-beloved military hero who had made a name for himself in World War I only to shame his country eternally in World War II. Chirac, for his part, was convicted in December 2011 at the age of 79 for having embezzled public funds during his tenure as Paris’s mayor, after it was discovered that more than a few employees on the town hall payroll were actually working on behalf of his political interests.
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.
A good French president, he writes, “must ensure that he guarantees national cohesion and continually seeks out those things that, in any domain, could strengthen it. Everything must be done to ease tensions in a country whose history shows that it sometimes tended toward arguments, antagonisms, and sudden eruptions.” While Chirac never convincingly establishes that he was in any way an agent of “national cohesion,” he does reveal his passion for easing “tensions,” especially when the “antagonisms and sudden eruptions” in question concern the legacy of the president himself.
There are moments when he seems to acknowledge this tendency. “I have sometimes been wrongly accused of being a sort of reluctant convert,” he confesses, largely to those who questioned his loyalty to the European enterprise, “rallying to a cause in which I do not believe just through force of circumstance.” Honest as it may be, this explanation doesn’t quite hide his opportunism and vanity.
These motivations become even clearer when he discusses why he has turned to writing books. Not to impart a vision, and not to record his times; “I wanted to change the image the French had of me.”
The fundamental change he wants to make with “My Life in Politics” is to cast himself as a leader on the world-historical stage, a man with many a “rendezvous with history in the making.” This is the convicted ex-president at his most presumptuous: Jacques Chirac was not Charles de Gaulle, and the France he inherited, at least in terms of national prestige, was a shadow of its former self. As president, he neither particularly strengthened nor weakened France’s position. At best, he was a custodian, and that is all.
Of course, Chrirac’s image may be salvaged in the end by what the French have always called his “prestance,” his confident allure. A 2010 poll cited him as the most admired political figure in France (Nicolas Sarkozy was 32nd). But that opinion may express pity for a humiliated octogenarian rather than admiration for a former leader. “My Life in Politics” is decidedly the swan song of the former.
MY LIFE IN POLITICS
By Jacques Chirac with Jean-Luc Barre
Translated from the French by Catherine Spencer
Palgrave Macmillan. 344 pp. $30