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Colin Randall wrote here on France, things Anglo-French and more......but has moved

March 12, 2007

All right, Jacques?

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Jacques Chirac was a neighbour in Paris. He remains an occasional one in the Var for the last weeks of his present job, since it has the perk of a holiday home down the road.

Though we choose not to live in each other's pockets, we have met twice - perhaps leaving the bigger impact on my memory - and I have observed him often enough to know I am not, at such times, in the presence of a monster.

My wife, in common with many French women, likes him. Her mother adored him and, I imagine, would have continued to do so had she not died before he became president.

But if you are British, and especially if you are English, Jacques Chirac is - or is meant to be - a hate figure.

This is expressed in more ways than the one chosen by a former editor of the Sun whose contribution to the entente cordiale was to dispatch a posse of Page 3 girls to the Champs Elysées, armed with a limited-issue edition of that day's paper, with Chirac depicted on the front as a worm.

Forget for a moment the inconvenient detail that, in Paris, to be likened to a worm will cause more bemusement than anything else (as my consoeur Agnès Poirier has pointed out in one of her books, Les Nouveaux Anglais, the term doesn't exist as an insult in French).

The gesture still reflected a view of the French president held pretty widely on the Sun's side of the Channel and the vulgar gimmickry of the tabloids has its equivalent in higher-minded journalistic circles.

Someone at that Other Place once inserted a word I had not used so that a piece written in the run-up to France's referendum on the EU constitution in 2005 declared that recent polls had confirmed the president's "worst fears that the electorate may use the referendum to register its disgust with him, his government and its lot in life".

I was cross at the time, not just because a colleague wishing to change copy in such a significant way should at least have the courtesy to mention his or her intentions in advance, but because the change introduced a word I considered far too harsh to describe the true nature of France's relationship with Chirac.

My own phrase had been "broader disapproval" and I might, on reflection, have chosen something stronger.

But disgust, while undoubtedly felt by an essentially partisan portion if the French electorate, was surely over the top and, in the specific case, much more accurately a reflection of what a middle-class Englishman of a certain political disposition believed.

Someone responding to one of my articles for the Guardian's Comment is Free web pages mocked Chirac's theory that it was more important to get on with governing France than satisfy media and political demands to end the guessing about his own future.

Picture: coombskj

A lot of French people I speak to would agree with that (French, I assume) person's criticism of his record in office, yet it is also commonplace to hear words of genuine admiration for the way he represents their country on the international stage.

But leave to one side his stand on Iraq and Chirac departs from the presidency having failed to make much impact on any of the important issues facing France. That puts into perpective all the attempts he has made during the dying months of his mandate to improve history's judgment on the Elysée years of his long career.

One former confidant, Franz-Olivier Giesbert, wrote in a scathing book last year that Chirac's career, which once promised a great deal, had ended up as "a personal tragedy that has become, in the end, a national tragedy".

This morning, more than one French commentator assessing last night's broadcast from the Elysée observed that here was a politician who was invariably stronger on analysis than on delivery, on words not actions.

Perhaps in the end, Chirac's failure was that no one was ever quite sure what he stood for, or whether what he stood for now was the same as what he stood for a little earlier.

He proved changeable on Europe and America, on the need to drive home reform in France; he opposed war in Iraq and loved to present himself as utterly committed to peace but was pig-headedly determined, as one of the first big decisions of his presidency, to try out his own nuclear weapons in the Pacific. He could be both a charmer, as I certainly found, and a bully (as Blair did).

If being detested by the American or English Right (or, for sure, the far Right of Le Pen) doesn't make him a bad person, Le Figaro could not help noting that he wasn't, at heart, a creature of the French Right either.

Much attention has been paid to his refusal to endorse Nicolas Sarkozy in the broadcast (he may, of course, do so later with whatever enthusiasm).

But I was left rather more intrigued by his reference to moving on from the presidency to serve France and the French in some other way. What can he possibly have in mind?

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This site has now moved to Salut!


At March 12, 2007 4:00 PM, Blogger Bill Taylor said...


At March 12, 2007 4:35 PM, Blogger Sarah said...

Lecture tour of the US telling the Americans how wonderful France and the French are (and telling them where it is on a map)?

At March 12, 2007 6:29 PM, Blogger richard of orleans said...

On the subject of heads of state. I see Charles has issued a document substaniating that he is fit to lead Britain (and Canada).

He does not mention whether he will stand for election and aquire the only political fitness worth something.

At March 12, 2007 8:11 PM, Blogger richard of orleans said...

"But if you are British, and especially if you are English, Jacques Chirac is - or is meant to be - a hate figure."

Besides the fact that I understand this to be factually true, I have never understood why. Whatever else one can say about him, he always seems to be a warm and friendly guy.He said he liked Leo.

At March 12, 2007 8:15 PM, Blogger Louise said...

Do you think we will see him bloging here, along with Bernadette?

At March 12, 2007 9:39 PM, Blogger Gigi said...

Isn't he a fan of sumo? He could fatten himself up and wrestle for the Republic :-)

At March 13, 2007 5:39 AM, Blogger Roger said...

Restaurant critic for the Irish Times maybe?

At March 14, 2007 3:33 PM, Blogger sjbyles said...

Just testing that I can comment after creating a google account.

At March 14, 2007 5:03 PM, Blogger Louise said...

That awful 'worm' photo in the Sun makes me think of a chocolate 'escargot' made by Lanvin that has been unwound.

At March 14, 2007 5:07 PM, Blogger Bill Taylor said...

He looks more like a Jacques-in-the-box than a worm.


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