Long-serving Chirac bids adieu
French President Jacques Chirac, whose political career spanned 40 years, steps down Wednesday as Nicolas Sarkozy takes the presidency.
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While the French were ready to replace Chirac, they have mixed emotions as he leaves. One inescapable fact about Chirac is that, for better or worse, he has always been on scene, something like a public utility. He rose under Charles De Gaulle, was a protégé of Georges Pompidou, and battled French heavyweights like Valéry Giscard D'Estaing and François Mitterrand. He comes from a generation of elites who kept a steady hand, and "didn't spend all his time taking credit in front of the cameras," the cabinet adviser says.Skip to next paragraph
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"Chirac has been here so long, we say he is 'like the furniture,' " says Yves Marie Laulan, an economist who worked with Chirac and wrote a book on him. "Jacques was ... easygoing, and he worked hard not to antagonize any section of France. That's an achievement in a society like ours."
Chirac's defenders say he can't be blamed for major world shifts since 1995 that have deeply affected France. Globalization, the Asian financial crisis, the expansion of Europe from 12 to 27 members, 9/11 and the rise of China, are not something "Chirac invented," says one scholar.
But Chirac is faulted as having been slow to adjust to the implications of those events. "France is lagging, and this is the work of Chirac," says Mr. Laulan. "He didn't have the guts to face the labor unions. He didn't want to antagonize, or face a million people in the street, so he left that job to Sarkozy."
Biographers say Chirac was deeply marked by his time in Algeria, where he was wounded. France was losing its empire. It created a crisis not unlike that felt by the "Vietnam generation."
Truth about history
Chirac's main legacy may be his work to rebalance the historical truth about France, say experts and diplomats. He led efforts to come to terms with and apologize for Nazi collaboration and French colonialism. His apology for the Vichy government was more than a belated reconciliation with the Jews, says one commentator. It was a broader effort to adjust the postwar story of France: Chirac's generation was weaned on a triumphal narrative by de Gaulle, a story in which the majority opposed Nazi occupation.
But the story wasn't accurate, as many learned by the late 1980s. Scholars like Tony Judt of New York University documented that few French resisted.
"Vichy was acceptable to most French people after the defeat of 1940," Mr. Judt notes. "Not [since] it pleased them to live under a regime that persecuted Jews, but because [Vichy] allowed the French to continue leading their lives in an illusion of security and normality…"
Chirac also inveighed against a rosy view of colonialism. Every president has left an architectural stamp on Paris. Chirac's is the Quai Branly museum, devoted to the arts of non-Western cultures.
"A legacy museum of primitive art on the banks of the same river as the Louvre, visited by schoolchildren all over France," says one political commentator. "It wouldn't have occurred to anybody to do this 40 years ago."
The main image of Chirac in the French mind is his charm with the public. Laulan calculated in 1999 that Chirac had shaken "five million to 10 million hands ... It's the old style."
The cabinet adviser notes that, "For most of us, France exists since World War II. We can't really imagine France before that. Chirac was present in the Algeria crisis, the '68 riots.… He is part of French history, and now he is leaving."