So, farewell then, Jacques Chirac.

Opinions about events beyond our borders.
May 8 2007 7:21 AM

So, Farewell Then, Jacques Chirac

Take your scorn for the Anglo-American world with you.

Jacques Chirac. Click image to expand.
Outgoing French President Jacques Chirac

"All political careers end in failure," a British statesman once wisely said. Judging by the wreckage of the famous political career that ended this week, he was even wiser than he knew. With the election of a new president of France on Sunday, the lengthy professional life of Jacques Chirac —French president for 12 years, mayor of Paris for 18 years, twice French prime minister for a total of four years—comes to a grinding halt, apparently to the great relief of his compatriots.

In the coming weeks, there will be plenty of time to discuss the virtues and vices of his successor, President-elect Nicolas Sarkozy. But before Chirac fades from the scene altogether—or before he becomes embroiled in corruption investigations—I'd like to take this opportunity to recall some of the highlights of his diplomatic career. Many Americans know him only as the man who made the right decision about Iraq, albeit for the wrong reasons. But try, if you can, to leave Iraq aside: Chirac's more important diplomatic legacy lies elsewhere.

Ponder closely, for example, what Chirac has had to say about Africa, where his country has enormous influence, in many places far outweighing ours. During a visit to the Ivory Coast, Chirac once called "multi-partyism" a "kind of luxury," which his host, president-for-life Félix Houphouet-Boigny, could clearly not afford. During a visit to Tunisia, he proclaimed that, since "the most important human rights are the rights to be fed, to have health, to be educated, and to be housed," Tunisia's human rights record is "very advanced"—never mind the police who beat up dissidents. "Africa is not ready for democracy," he told a group of African leaders in the early 1990s.

On Britain: "The only thing they have ever done for European agriculture is mad cow disease. … You can't trust people who cook as badly as that."

On Russia: "For his contribution to friendship between France and Russia," Chirac decorated Vladimir Putin last year with the highest order of the Légion d'honneur, a medal reserved for the closest foreign friends of France (Churchill, Eisenhower), despite the deterioration of the Russian president's human rights record. A few weeks later, Chirac decided to hold his 74th birthday party in Riga, Latvia, after a NATO summit. He invited President Putin, disinvited President George W. Bush, and snubbed the Latvian president in the process. As the diplomatic scandal grew, the guests all begged off, and the birthday dinner never took place.

On Saddam Hussein: "You are my personal friend. Let me assure you of my esteem, consideration, and bond."

On Eastern Europe supporting the United States in the United Nations: "It is not really responsible behavior. It is not well-brought-up behavior. They missed a good opportunity to shut up."

On Iran's nuclear program: "Having one or perhaps a second bomb a little later, well, that's not very dangerous." Theoretically, Chirac was supposed to be negotiating with Iran to give up its nuclear program at the time.

On hearing a French businessman address a European summit in English, "deeply shocked," he stormed out of the room.

As I say, it's a very important legacy: One of consistent scorn for the Anglo-American world in general and the English language in particular, of suspicion of Central Europe and profound disinterest in the wave of democratic transformation that swept the world in the 1980s and 1990s, of preference for the Arab and African dictators who had been, and remained, clients of France. In his later years, Chirac constantly searched, in almost all international conflicts, for novel ways of opposing the United States. All along, he did his best to protect France from the rapidly changing global economy.

It was, in other words, the legacy of a man who was deeply conservative, almost Brezhnevite in his view of the world - so much so that the word most often used to describe his political beliefs is "stagnation." But as he leaves office, the loudest condemnation of his twelve years as head of state comes not from the outside world, but from the French themselves. Don't listen to me, listen to them: After all, it is they who have just elected a man who promised to "break with the ideas, the habits and the behavior of the past."

"The French people have chosen change," Sarkozy declared during his acceptance speech Sunday night. "I will implement that change." And what they want, it seems, is a change from Chirac.

TODAY IN SLATE

Culturebox

The Ebola Story

How our minds build narratives out of disaster.

The Budget Disaster That Completely Sabotaged the WHO’s Response to Ebola

PowerPoint Is the Worst, and Now It’s the Latest Way to Hack Into Your Computer

The Shooting Tragedies That Forged Canada’s Gun Politics

A Highly Unscientific Ranking of Crazy-Old German Beers

Education

Welcome to 13th Grade!

Some high schools are offering a fifth year. That’s a great idea.

Culturebox

The Actual World

“Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.

Want Kids to Delay Sex? Let Planned Parenthood Teach Them Sex Ed.

Would You Trust Walmart to Provide Your Health Care? (You Should.)

  News & Politics
Politics
Oct. 22 2014 9:42 PM Landslide Landrieu Can the Louisiana Democrat use the powers of incumbency to save herself one more time?
  Business
Continuously Operating
Oct. 22 2014 2:38 PM Crack Open an Old One A highly unscientific evaluation of Germany’s oldest breweries.
  Life
Dear Prudence
Oct. 23 2014 6:00 AM Monster Kids from poorer neighborhoods keep coming to trick-or-treat in mine. Do I have to give them candy?
  Double X
The XX Factor
Oct. 22 2014 4:27 PM Three Ways Your Text Messages Change After You Get Married
  Slate Plus
Tv Club
Oct. 22 2014 5:27 PM The Slate Walking Dead Podcast A spoiler-filled discussion of Episodes 1 and 2.
  Arts
Culturebox
Oct. 22 2014 11:54 PM The Actual World “Mount Thoreau” and the naming of things in the wilderness.
  Technology
Future Tense
Oct. 22 2014 5:33 PM One More Reason Not to Use PowerPoint: It’s The Gateway for a Serious Windows Vulnerability
  Health & Science
Bad Astronomy
Oct. 23 2014 7:30 AM Our Solar System and Galaxy … Seen by an Astronaut
  Sports
Sports Nut
Oct. 20 2014 5:09 PM Keepaway, on Three. Ready—Break! On his record-breaking touchdown pass, Peyton Manning couldn’t even leave the celebration to chance.