Jacques Chirac: Last throw for Europe's survivor

The cynical President of France found an idea he could believe in, but could not sell it to the French people
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When President Jacques Chirac was re-elected three years ago, the defeated Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, made a prediction. Within two years, M. Chirac would cause a political train wreck.

When President Jacques Chirac was re-elected three years ago, the defeated Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin, made a prediction. Within two years, M. Chirac would cause a political train wreck.

Why? Because throughout his career - the longest still active political career in Europe - M. Chirac has caused a train wreck within two years of taking any national office. (He was a failed Prime Minister in 1974-6 and 1986-8; he made a disastrous start to his first presidential term in 1995-7, stumbling into cohabitation with the Left.)

M. Jospin, it seems, was right but 12 months out. The lights are on red; the train is heading for the buffers. If the opinion polls are to be believed, France may vote against the European Union constitution a week from tomorrow, plunging the EU into confusion and British europhobes into an orgasm of ironic delight.

President Chirac has made it clear that he will not resign, if defeated (despite the precedent set by his alleged mentor, Charles de Gaulle, who resigned after losing a far less significant referendum in 1969). Nonetheless, the remaining two years of M. Chirac's presidency would be a withered arm: a political cul de sac. His occupation of France's highest political office - the pinnacle he spent a lifetime knifing friends and misappropriating taxpayers' money to attain - would go down as a miserable failure.

The Chirac era would be seen as a dozen wasted years, a time when France drifted into the 21st century without a vision for the future and ended up by destroying, or at least crippling, the united Europe which previous French generations had done so much to build. Of course, Chirac being Chirac, the president would try to bounce back. He was viscerally against the EU in 1979 and 1995 and passionately in favour of the EU in 1988 and 2002. The day after a French non, M. Chirac would, doubtless, vary his Euro-political geometry once again. He would present himself as the natural leader of the Nonistes, or at least the only man capable of putting the European and French trains back on the tracks.

If France votes yes - and the Ouiistes may still pull it off - M. Chirac will try to claim a personal triumph. He will nominate a new prime minister and try to make yet another change of direction. He will be tempted to run again for the presidency in 2007, at the age of 74. That would be a pity. French electors (who adore a plausible rogue) have forgiven M. Chirac many things in the past. The president's responsibility for the present mess - and his weightlessness during the campaign - suggest that, yes or no next week, it is time for France to move on.

Two years ago Jacques Chirac had his finest hour. After he resisted the Bush-Blair war in Iraq, he was hailed in France, but not just in France, as a strategic visionary. His standing in the polls rose to the sweltering 80s. After three decades of throwaway politics, he had invented, maybe by accident, a "Chirac Doctrine". The world, said M. Chirac, was no longer a question of east-west or north-south. It was a "multi-polar" world, which meant that Europeans must build a common front, not to thwart the US at every turn, but to avoid being bullied into ideological and hare-brained adventures like the Iraq war.

Two years on, the Chirac doctrine still looks sensible enough. How come the president has failed to persuade the French electors, who cheered "multi-polarism" in 2002, that the French "pole" is Europe and that a strong European pole needs a stronger, larger European Union? Why has France had such difficulty in swallowing the idea of a constitutional declaration of "values" and a simpler decision-making process for a 25-nation EU?

In his first TV debate, M. Chirac tried to make this point. France should be confident and bold, he said. France should grab a share of the leadership in this new Europe. France had no reason to fear for its future. The young audience looked on blankly. None of the questions, save one, raised the historic importance of the reunification of Europe, east and west. The young people seemed obsessed by personal and domestic problems and half-remembered Yes-No arguments about the confusing minutiae of the treaty.

It was as if, to misquote the 19th-century novelist Stendhal, M. Chirac was looking up at clouds and France was looking at the puddles in the road. The whole referendum campaign has been a little like that. France, the nation which adores big ideas and grands projets, the nation that invented the European Dream, seems to have shrivelled back into itself. The idea of a reunited and relaunched Europe has been portrayed as a threat or an obligation, rarely as an opportunity or a cause for joy.

Would a non to the constitutional treaty truly be M. Chirac's fault? His centre-right electorate is largely behind the constitution (70-80 per cent for the oui in the polls). It is the centre-left - the political family of the great European, François Mitterrand, father of the euro - that is pushing France towards a non. But Chirac has a direct responsibility for what happens next Sunday for four reasons. First, it was Jacques Chirac who was the first EU head of state or government to call for a European constitution, in a rambling, incoherent speech at the Bundestag in Berlin in June 2000. The necessary changes in the rules could have been made in an updated EU treaty. Calling it a "constitution" was always a hostage to fortune.

Second, it was M. Chirac who decided to call a referendum on the constitutional treaty in France. Democratically, that may have been the right thing to do but M. Chirac's motives were partly tactical: to embarrass the French left, which had won sweeping victories against him in the regional and European elections last year. The fact that Tony Blair had just announced a UK referendum was only a marginal factor.

Thirdly, the Chirac years, confused by a Socialist interregnum in the prime minister's office, have done nothing to resolve the political and economic conundrums which face France. Growth is low. Unemployment remains high. As a result, France - a hugely successful country in many domains, from cars to planes to insurance to luxury goods - remains transfixed by the assumed menace of globalisation and the enlargement of Europe to the east. These anxieties have been skilfully exploited by the No camp. French leftist intellectuals are shocked, SHOCKED, to discover that the EU promotes free trade and open competition (as it has since 1958, with enormous benefits for France and Europe as a whole).

Fourthly, President Chirac - the man supposed to be the rassembleur of the nation, the man elected with many left-wing votes to stop the far right in 2002 - made little attempt to explain or sell the EU constitution to the French people until it was too late. In his first, TV contribution, debating with 83 young people in prime time last month, he tried to present himself as a crypto-leftist defender of the French "social model" against the wicked Anglo-Saxons. In his second intervention, he tried to claim the EU treaty - and the whole of the EU - as a kind of "France writ large", "the daughter of the French revolution of 1789". Neither argument helped much. The polls barely budged.

Lord Carrington once famously divided all politicians into those who want to "be something" and those who want to "do something". Jacques Chirac, who will be 73 in November, has always had a strong idea of what he wanted to be. It has never been so clear what Jacques Chirac wanted to do.

When he was mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995, illegal kick-backs were paid on public contracts. The cash was used to fund M. Chirac's party, the RPR, not so much as a political party, as a vehicle for M. Chirac's ambition to be president. Minor politicians and officials are currently on trial for their role in one part of this scandal. M. Chirac's presidential immunity has kept him from investigation. If he loses the EU vote on Sunday, he loses all chance of standing again as president in 2007. His former protégé and hated would-be successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, would almost certainly become the standard-bearer of the centre-right.

As an ex-president in two years' time, M. Chirac may face legal complications but he is unlikely to be "thrown in jail", as the right-wing press in Britain insists. Many French politicians have been found guilty of illegal fundraising. None has yet been sent to jail.

The risk for M. Chirac in next week's vote is more serious than jail: his place in history is at stake. For 37 years, Chirac has brilliantly ridden the wave of the curious French habit of constantly demanding change but punishing politicians who try to change anything. He has managed to represent, at the same time, change and the status quo.

When France needed a man capable of acting as national father-confessor, when it needed a man capable of soothing and transcending its fears - real and imagined - it looked to M. Chirac and found him hollow and unconvincing. As an apostle of the European gospel, or the "social market", he had reversed his jacket too often: he was not credible.

And yet M. Chirac, the cynic, the tactician, has finally found a sensible idea - a strong Europe in a multi-polar world. It was an idea that M. Chirac appeared to believe in; the one that would secure his place in history. But M. Chirac, the great salesman, has been unable to sell his idea to the French people.

If the French vote non next week, the Chirac Doctrine will be dead, or on life support for a decade. And it will be largely M. Chirac's fault.

A Life in Brief

BORN Paris, 29 November 1932.

FAMILY Married to Bernadette. Two daughters, Laurence and Claude.

EDUCATION Graduate of the Institut d'Études Politiques and the Ecole nationale d'administration.

CAREER Elected to the Assemblée Nationale in 1967 as a deputy for Corrèze. Held various government posts before serving as prime minister under Valéry Giscard d'Estaing, 1974-76. Elected mayor of Paris in 1977. Served a second term as premier, 1986-88. He became president of the republic in 1995.

HE SAYS "May 29 represents a historic choice that concerns each and every one of us ... Make the choice that will allow France to shine ... choose a fair and powerful Europe."

THEY SAY "Typical Chirac: he pushes more and more for the 'yes', but if the 'no' won tomorrow you'd see that he'd be the first to explain how it was an excellent victory for the French." Philippe de Villiers, President, Mouvement pour la France

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