My Life in Politics

  • Jacques Chirac, translated from the French by Catherine Spencer
  • Palgrave Macmillan
  • 352 pp.
  • November 19, 2012

Beyond the usual recitation of life and career, the French leader serves up interesting observations about political contemporaries.

Reviewed by Steve Goldstein

To many Americans, the name Jacques Chirac will be forever associated with “freedom fries,” as French fries were dubbed in response to Chirac’s opposition to war with Iraq. This is unfortunate, for it trivializes one of the important political figures of the late 20th century.

Chirac was more than “important,” it can be argued, not quite “towering” but a savvy player in world affairs and a contemporary of Mikhail Gorbachev, Helmut Kohl, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush and Chirac’s predecessor, Francois Mitterand. Chirac’s long political career as a protégé of Gen. Charles De Gaulle, his good looks and winning personality and his involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian issue and other volatile Middle Eastern affairs all contribute to the legacy of a significant statesman. That he played a controversial role in the run-up to war with Iraq adds a strong historical footnote to his record.

Political memoirs are more alike than not in their inevitable recitation of résumés and relationships, but Chirac strives to separate his from the pack with candid observations about his fellow world leaders. Still, much of the book is devoted to domestic politics, so be prepared for a heavy dose of intrigue in the Elysee Palace. Chirac begins by running through his long political career first as a member of parliament from his ancestral home in Correze, a department in south central France, then as a two-time prime minister in the 1970s and ’80s and finally as the dashing mayor of Paris and president of the Republic from 1995 to 2007.

As a boy, he yearned to be head of the civil aviation authority or governor of the Bank of France. A three-month sea adventure following high school was followed by Chirac’s enrollment in the prestigious Sciences-Po political institute. There he met his future wife, Bernadette de Courcel, a daughter of aristocrats, whose mother asked of her more plebian future son-in-law, “Is he at least baptized?” Later, an appointment to the staff of President Georges Pompidou led him, “virtually under orders,” into a political career.

Chirac’s recitation of his domestic political career is marked by relatively little score-settling, although former President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, with whom he fell out after serving as his prime minister, gets singled out as a mean-spirited, vindictive and ruthless character. Chirac also omits discussion of his conviction in 2011 on charges of corruption for embezzling public funds and abusing trust during his term as mayor. He beautified Paris but left a stain as well. A two-year prison sentence was suspended.

The charm of My Life in Politics lies in Chirac’s observations about political contemporaries. Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat is criticized for always wanting more once a deal was reached. British Prime Minister Tony Blair is always “bowing to Washington.” Chirac was particularly fascinated by the Clintons. The former U.S. president is a “warm, open, pleasant man, a great professional politician, firm in his convictions but probably clever enough to adapt himself to any situation ... his charisma was striking ... he radiated pugnacity, enthusiasm and youth.” His real ardor is reserved for Hillary: “I have to confess it was she who made the strongest impression on me, so struck was I by her intellectual superiority, her listening and interpersonal skills and the energy, determination and courage with which she devoted herself wholeheartedly to the realization of their common ambition.”

Of L’Affaire Lewinsky, Chirac takes a very French view, offering quick and repeated support, encouraging Clinton, as he recounts in the book, not to give up “in the face of the baying hounds of his detractors, even fearing that he might put an end to his life through despair.”

Although Chirac strongly denounced terrorism — he was the first foreign head of state to visit New York following the 9/11 attacks — he emerged as the leading opponent of President George W. Bush’s organization and deployment of a military coalition to effect regime change in Iraq. Chirac details a long, mostly cordial relationship with Saddam Hussein, from whom he bought oil and to whom he sold Iraq’s first nuclear reactor, and spends several chapters on the intrigue during the run-up to the Iraq War. He was dubious about Iraq’s reputed stockpile of nuclear weapons, urged the continuation of examination by the international weapons inspectors and resisted the general saber rattling and coalition building by the Bush administration. In particular, he scathingly dismisses then Secretary of State Colin Powell’s speech to the U.N. Security Council for failing to present “any new facts that could justify ...  preventative war.”

U.S. leaders attacked Chirac for acting in self-interest in announcing that France would vote against a U.N. resolution authorizing the use of force against Iraq, leading to the famous appearance of “freedom fries” in Congressional cafeterias and assorted restaurants. But given what we know now about the non-existence of weapons of mass destruction and the later recantations by both Powell and Blair, one could argue that Chirac may have acted selfishly, but his opposition was prescient. He gets a last dig in at Bush by recalling one of Bush’s famous malapropisms in which he mangled the name of Chirac’s top diplomatic adviser.

There is a final poignancy in the memoir worth mentioning. After a 40-year career in French politics, the second-longest presidency besides Mitterand’s, Chirac notes with some bitterness that he goes unmentioned in Nicolas Sarkozy’s inaugural address in 2007. “Deep down I was affected by it,” he writes. One can only imagine the satisfaction he felt when “Sarko” was ushered out of office in May 2012 after a single term.

Steve Goldstein is a recovering journalist who worked as a reporter, foreign correspondent and Washington bureau chief for The Philadelphia Inquirer.

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