We French love to mourn our former presidents. Thousands queued to pay their last respects to Jacques Chirac as he lay in state at the weekend. Monday was a day of national mourning: the tricolour flew at half mast everywhere and a minute’s silence was observed even in schools. It is hard, though, to know which love is greater – the love of mourning the passing of former heads of state, or the love of loathing them with the fervour we held when they were in power. I remember all through the 1970s my mother calling Chirac “facho Chirac” because of his greasy, thinning pulled-back hair, his wannabe Charles de Gaulle style of speaking and his war-like conquest of the right and of Paris city hall.
Nevertheless, like millions of others on the left, my mother managed to hold her nose and vote for this “fascist” in the second round of the 2002 presidential elections, when the alternative was Jean-Marie Le Pen. And if she hadn’t already passed away herself, she would have probably shared with me the same strange sentiment which seemed to descend on the French this week: a collective nostalgia, if not sorrow. A poll conducted by the Journal du Dimanche places Chirac as the best French president of the modern era, second only to De Gaulle. How did it come to this?
The French have an unusual relationship with power, specifically with our elected presidency. It is, some would say with good reason, a relationship that is borderline pathological. At a time when parliamentary politics is dogged by instability, weak majorities, the decline of the traditional parties and the rise of populist leaders, France’s presidential system appears to be holding up. But it has also infantilised our expectations of politicians. Election after election, we want this president-god to deliver radically better lives, full employment, higher pay and no debt – we want “the butter and the money for the butter” as the saying goes, in other words we want to have our cake and eat it.
With every new president, the first political mania that afflicts us is idealisation. We look for a new paradise on Earth to unfold in the first few months, and we are, naturally, barbarously disappointed when it fails to materialise. This leads to the second mania: revolution. A head of state eventually has to face the guillotine. Only after he’s been brought down, can we enter the third phase of our presidential mania: mourning and nostalgia. This is where we are now.
It seems remarkable that Chirac can be mourned with such affection when he delivered so little and left office under a cloud of corruption. He was elected on an ambitious goal – to heal la fracture sociale – but he gave up every time he encountered a protest. It is hard to think of a single lasting reform he ever followed through on. He would have almost certainly given into the gilets jaunes much more quickly than Macron did.
Chirac’s presidency ran from 1995 to 2007, overlapping with Tony Blair’s decade as British prime minister, and they faced similar global challenges. But the French love affair with Chirac took off precisely because he didn’t do any Blairite-type reforming. He was sticking to big principles on more comfortable ground. The French love that. By opposing the US-UK war in Iraq, his popularity reached its height at the very moment when Blair began to fall from grace in the UK.
Seeing four living presidents parade into the eglise Saint-Sulpice for Chirac’s funeral was a reminder of how these individuals have come to embody the political eras they oversaw.
Between them – Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, Nicolas Sarkozy, François Hollande and Emmanuel Macron – they have presided over the last 50 years of our political history. We have loved and hated them as almighty president-gods; in our minds they are Shakespearean characters who have acted out decades of political intrigue, power struggle and treason.
Giscard, still going at 93, despised Chirac. The feeling was mutual: Chirac hated Giscard so much that he betrayed him by voting for the socialist François Mitterrand over him in 1981.
Sarkozy was a Chirac protege who betrayed his mentor in favour of the enemy Édouard Balladur. Hollande was his Socialist party opponent but got on so well with the Conservative Chirac that the latter declared his vote would go to Hollande rather than Sarkozy in 2012.
Macron paid a long tribute to his predecessor, but two years into his term, he is struggling for the nation’s affections himself. He may have recovered from the low point of the gilets jaunes protests when he seemed completely out of touch, but he faces more turmoil in the autumn as he tries to push through ambitious social reforms and get his vision for transforming the EU back on track. And in these populist times, with his main opposition coming from the far right, being so identifiably “of the elite”, so young and lacking provincial roots in a country in desperate search of a father figure, is not easy. Macron, Hollande, Sarkozy and Giscard must have all wondered, as they surveyed the congregation, if they would one day be mourned like Chirac.
Who knows, but I think what France was mourning this week was not Chirac the man, but rather presidential politics from a simpler era.
Chirac was a political chameleon: urbane yet utterly in touch with the grassroots, a culture lover, a womaniser, a bon vivant yet down to earth, dishonest but somehow able to appear uncynical. His puppet on Les Guignols, a satirical TV show, always had the knives of allies who’d betrayed him sticking out of his back, which the nation always found endearing.
He could be all things to all voters: a man of the right and a man of the left. He had an instinctive understanding of what motivated ordinary farming people all over his rural Correze constituency. Chirac was the Johnny Hallyday of French politics. Like the singer idolised by the French for generations, he had the style of a cowboy “à l’ancienne”. And just like “Johnny”, he reminded the French of a more innocent era that began with the loosening up of the swinging 1960s: a time of more straightforward politics, without the calculations required for the era of social media and Trump-Johnsonian bombast, or the normalisation of turning “the people” against the political class.
It will be impossible for Macron to ever emulate Chirac’s legacy. Chirac governed at a time when a French president, even one who so manifestly failed to give the French the better lives they demanded, could make himself popular without being a populist.
Marion Van Renterghem is a French journalist.