Primer for France’s political right

My Life in Politics, by Jacques Chirac, with Jean-Luc Barre, Palgrave Macmillan, £30

In politics, only physical death counts, otherwise resurrection is always possible,” Alain Juppé, the Gaullist politician, observed last week. He was speaking of France’s main opposition UMP party, which he described as “moribund, not dead” after a bitterly disputed leadership contest that threatens to split the centre-right group he once led.

But he could as easily have been referring to the career of his mentor Jacques Chirac, the former president who ranks among the great survivors of French politics. It was Chirac who founded the UMP in 2002, in an attempt to end decades of fratricidal divisions in the French centre-right – which he himself had proved expert in exploiting during his rise to the presidency. Anyone seeking to understand the current mess could turn to this new English translation of Chirac’s memoirs as a primer.

My Life in Politics, assembled from interviews by a friendly biographer, spans four decades in high office. Beginning with his stint as employment minister under Georges Pompidou, when Chirac says he dissuaded unions from joining the 1968 student protests, the book ends with his second term as president, during which he won notoriety in the US and acclaim at home for opposing the Iraq war.

In the intervening years, he spent much time governing, whether as prime minister or as mayor of Paris, in tandem with opponents from the left or rivals of similar convictions. Of the two, the governments of cohabitation seem to have been easier. Chirac struggled to pass economic reforms as prime minister under the Socialist presidency of François Mitterrand, but the experience taught him the “vices and virtues, subtle games and advantageous constraints” of such arrangements. Such was their rapport that when Chirac succeeded him in the Elysée, Mitterand put the furniture back as Charles de Gaulle had had it as a welcome gesture.

In contrast, relations with rivals of the same political family were often fraught. Of most relevance to the current internecine struggle in the UMP are Chirac’s accounts of his long feuds with the centrist president, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing; his later struggles with Edouard Balladur; and his handling of the rise of the far-right National Front.

Giscard is described as “exceptionally intelligent ... but with an obvious propensity to accord little importance to others”. Balladur is a “cold calculator who ... made no secret of the fact that he felt superior to all those who surrounded me”.

Such animosity had lasting results. After a brief and difficult stint serving as prime minister under Giscard, Chirac founded the Gaullist RPR party and drained support from the president’s UDF. He ran first against a Giscardian candidate to become mayor of Paris then, in 1981, against Giscard himself in the presidential election, splitting the centre-right vote to Mitterrand’s advantage.

Chirac was branded a manipulative traitor for such manoeuvres. He, in turn, never forgave Balladur, a former protégé, for running against him in the 1995 presidential election – or another, Nicolas Sarkozy, for backing Balladur in that campaign.

Today’s schisms of the right appear driven as much by personal ambition or antipathy as by ideology. But this theory is complicated by the fact that the UMP is an uneasy mix of political traditions – Gaullist, centrist, liberal and a harder, more populist right wing. Sarkozy’s leadership dynamised this coalition but did little to clarify its thinking.

Here too, Chirac’s experience sheds light. Never a rightwing ideologue, he consistently refused any accommodation with the party founded by Jean-Marie Le Pen. The former president never lived down a crass comment about the “noise and smell” of immigrants but, far from xenophobia, he displays a sincere admiration of the Arab world and other civilisations. And in a book heavy on self-justification, his one explicit regret is failing to form a government of national unity after Le Pen’s advance to the second round of the 2002 election.

Chirac turned 80 last month and reportedly has little interest in the travails of his party. But even in a retirement tainted by old funding scandals, he consistently tops polls as France’s most popular political figure.

The UMP might do well to reflect on the qualities that gave him such broad appeal. Affable and at ease with his constituents, he was always able to conform to voters’ ideas of how a president should behave – whether tucking into a regional delicacy on the campaign trail or upholding French values in grandiose fashion on the world stage.

Despite his Machiavellian talents, he subscribed to a Gaullist vision of France’s “destiny and place in the world ... rooted in an intimate and detailed knowledge of its local idiosyncrasies”.

His successors should take note.

The writer is deputy comment editor

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