When outgoing French President Jacques Chirac led a French Army unit in Algeria's guerrilla war in 1956, Tony Blair was 3 years old. When Mr. Chirac attended Harvard summer school, hitchhiked around America, and worked at a Howard Johnson's in 1950, the new French president, Nicolas Sarkozy, had not been born. Chirac can discuss ancient Oriental art, Japanese sumo wrestling, and farming for hours. He has been precocious, ambitious, a loner, prickly, twice prime minister of France, mayor of Paris for 18 years, president for the past 12 – and today, he is leaving.
Chirac's departure after 40 years as a leader marks a clear shift from a breed of cold war political giants who embodied a stoic loyalty and duty to a country that has long viewed itself as an exceptional carrier of "civilization" and its virtues.
In the past decade, Chirac did not wear exceptionally well. He became synonymous overseas with French recalcitrance, and known at home as a passive steward of frustration and decline. France's economy dropped to 15th from 4th since Chirac took over in 1995. In the recent elections, experts agree, Chirac's interior minister and opponent Mr. Sarkozy, ran against his boss's record by promising tough reforms on which Chirac never delivered. And the president may face more problems as he leaves. Judicial officials said in March that Chirac will be questioned over corruption investigations dating to when he was mayor of Paris.
Iraq opposition welcomed at home
In America, the tall Frenchman may best be known for his thumbs down on the Iraq war. In January 2003, as the White House signaled a nonnegotiable intent to displace Saddam Hussein, Chirac tried and failed to challenge the "unilateral intervention" of the US.
"There really is a turning point," says François Heisbourg, special adviser to the Foundation for Strategic Studies in Paris. "Before January 2003, the French policy under Chirac, like the British policy under Blair, was liberal interventionism, seen in Bosnia and Kosovo. Chirac was ambivalent about Iraq. But when his advisers were told ... the war had been decided no matter what the Security Council did ... that French views weren't important … Chirac got angry."
Chirac and France paid heavily for that opposition, and for trying to make Europe a counterweight to America – though Chirac's lone stand against the White House is still very popular here.
"The French like someone who will stand up and tell the US or China, you are wrong," says a cabinet adviser. "The French have a point of view that the left and right both agree on. We want someone to articulate that. Chirac did."
Charles Kupchan, Europe director at the Council on Foreign Relations in Washington, says Chirac's career can't be reduced to Iraq. The leader may be faulted for his comfort with the status quo, but gets an "unjustifiably bad rap for his role in the Iraq buildup," he says. "Chirac happens to have been correct on Iraq. …. Chirac and [former German Chancellor Gerhard] Schröder were right to object.... It is also interesting that neither fared well politically after that."
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.
"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."