September 27, 2019 by Andrew W M Smith
The slick Caius Preposterous knew how to turn a deal. He also knew the way to political power. How to subdue the rebellious Gauls? “Easy, O Caesar. Gold, the profit motive will enfeeble them and keep them busy. We must corrupt them.”
When Goscinny and Uderzo needed a flash young man to seduce Obelix & Co in 1976, they needed look no further than to caricature the young Prime Minister who had so flamboyantly bulldozed his way through French politics. At the end of the story, despite mountains of Roman sestertii from Caesar, Preposterous got his lumps from the Gauls. For the bold Chirac, however, the punchline always seemed a little further off.
Chirac was a conservative in the wake of the General, straddling a world in transition, and a nation facing up to global challenges. His tenure as President can perhaps be characterised by the idea of ‘managed globalisation’, in which France adapted and accommodated prevailing trends of the globalised world, but did so on her own terms. Indeed, this resistance to prevailing winds was most pronounced in 2003, when Chirac mobilised the French veto in the UN, or the threat of it at least, to signal the Franco-German resistance to intervention in Iraq (despite Atlanticist support from the UK, Spain, and Italy). Crucially, he stated that France was neither pacifist, nor anti-American, but that it did not see war as a means towards disarmament. As Hubert Védrine said at the time, Chirac’s Gaullism led to a personal and direct engagement in Third World diplomacy, and he expressed profound concerns of the potential for subsequent regional destabilisation. A hint of Asterix himself then perhaps, though truly the faintest of whiffs. [i]
But this picture of Chirac is incomplete, and these characters a poor fit. To a dash of slick political manoeuvring, and a soupcon of charismatic resistance add… an apple. Chirac’s election as President in 1995 played on his profound concern for la fracture sociale and the pilgrimages to the countryside that (at least symbolically) brought him into contact with France’s ‘left-behinds’. Lampooned and then feted as a lover of apples, his ‘Compagnons! Mangez des pommes!’ as heard on Les Guignols de l’info soon became a recognisable trope. This charismatic, personable style contrasted him with then Prime Minister Edouard Balladur. The junior of the two, Balladur had been the placeholder as PM, meant to step aside for Chirac’s candidacy. Yet, the popular minister found the limelight tough to relinquish and stood against Chirac. Despite initially leading in the polls, over the course of the campaign Balladur appeared stiffer and more remote in the face of Chirac’s charm, bluster, and concern for the ordinary man.
Yet, as Andrew Knapp notes, Chirac’s was a candidacy promising “a leftish programme before polling day and applying conservative policies afterwards, justifying the deception with a ritual invocation of cruel economic necessity.”[ii] This was part of Chirac’s talent and appeal, to appear at once a genuine man of the people pursuing simple principles, while always working his own political angle. As the title of his own memoirs would suggest, “each step must be a goal.” Chirac’s character was a man of the provinces, with inexhaustible appetites alongside his easy bonhomie, all underpinned by the political considerations of where it would count. Yes, Obelix would eat an apple (especially when out of options in All At Sea), yet we all know he preferred a boar.
Personal charm often seemed to outweigh his own mendacity, and corruption dogged Chirac’s political career. Financial scandals and his eventual conviction for corruption during his time as Paris mayor confirmed the rumours that had clung to him. Glossing this fact, the 2019 commemorative 2 Euro coin bearing the face of Asterix serves as another symbol of Chirac’s Presidency, which saw France grow ever closer to Europe. Despite closer German relations, the first part of Chirac’s tenure exhibited a turbulent engagement in France’s approach to European integration.[iii] His second term saw Chirac warm, and calling the referendum on the Maastricht Treaty in 2005 was intended to be an affirmation of this decision. The result… differed, but Chirac ploughed on. As President Macron reflected, his was a belief in Europe as a vehicle for French power. In his own reflection, he praised Chirac “for fighting for a Europe of peoples, and not a Europe of markets,” adding that he wanted “a stronger and more protective Europe, built on an unflagging Franco-German friendship.”[iv] Yet again, his legacy seems like that of Caius Preposterous, flexible in his political colours, always slick, and ever on the take. His emotive Presidential addresses, calling out to his dear compatriots, seemed to offer sentiment and style over substance.
For all that style went a long way, it is important to acknowledge that there was real substance, too. Chirac’s most serious and symbolic role was in acknowledging the horrors of French institutional complicity in the Shoah.[v] This is the challenge of the complex figure that he cast. For all his charm and political nous, he was also admirable in many ways. As the Guardian reported, Richard Ferrand, President of the Assembly offered a lively summary of the man: “In Chirac, France has lost a hero from Alexandre Dumas: charmer, fighter and much deeper than he wanted to appear […] The French people have lost an indefatigable republican, visionary, attentive to the great debates of his time … Jacques Chirac is part of the history of France. A France in his image: spirited, complex, often full of contradictions, always driven by a tireless republican passion.”[vi]
Slick sure and corrupt to boot, Chirac was more than the crook his detractors painted him as on his second Presidential victory against the dastardly Le Pen.[vii] He was also a symbol of something onto which hopes were projected and stories wrapped around, albeit one that tended to disappoint. He never quite healed the “fracture sociale” and the riots of 2005 seemed to confirm this in much the same way as those of 1995. Never quite just the young Caius Preposterous, neither was he as heroic as the eponymous Gaul or his pig-tailed chum Obelix. Perhaps the best symbol of Chirac’s grandiose style and narrative sweep is that commemorative European coin bearing Asterix’s head: a brilliant shine, the promise of a story, and the sestertii to make it happen.
[i] See David Styan, ‘Jacques Chirac’s ‘non’: France, Iraq and the United Nations, 1991–2003’, Modern & Contemporary France, 12:3 (2004), 371-385.
[ii] Andrew Knapp, ‘Chirac: Digne héritier du gaullisme ou vieux routard rad‐soc?’, Modern & Contemporary France, 5:3 (1997), 332-335
[iii] Alistair Cole, Governing and Governance in France (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 97
[v] See Peter Carrier, ‘National Reconciliation?’ Mitterrand, Chirac and the Commemorations of Vichy 1992–95’, National Identities, 2:2 (2000), 127-144.
[vii] Helen Drake, ‘Jacques Chirac’s Balancing Acts: the French Right and Europe’, South European Society & Politics, 10:2 (2005), 297-313.