Leading article: A flawed President prepares to bow out


President Chirac has kept France guessing - something he has elevated to a personal art form - but seems finally to have accepted the inevitable. At 74, with two ambitious and energetic younger candidates fighting for his job, his chances of re-election are zero.

M. Chirac's admission came in a television interview to be broadcast this weekend as part of a programme paying tribute to his wife and France's first lady, Bernadette. But details found their way into the French press yesterday. "There is life after politics," he is quoted as saying, adding by way of self-justification, that he had "always tried to act for the French people". It is hard to interpret this as anything other than a farewell.

Elysée spinmeisters insisted that his words gave no hint of his intentions. He would, they said, announce his decision when he chose to do so. But any hopes they, and he, might have had of avoiding the lame-duckery so evident in London and Washington were vain. Ten weeks before the election, M. Chirac's authority is draining away. It is legacy time in Paris, too.

The truth is though that, for the majority of French voters, M. Chirac has been yesterday's man at very least since Nicolas Sarkozy's campaign to succeed him went into overdrive late last year. Arguably his decline began well before that, with the unexplained illness he suffered 18 months ago. Now, the lead M. Sarkozy currently enjoys in the opinion polls leaves M. Chirac without the popularity gap he might have hoped to exploit. For a politician who, like his nation, values elegance and the maintenance of proper appearances, M. Chirac now has little choice but to prepare for his departure.

Overall, his political career will probably be judged more kindly than his chief detractors would like, but more harshly than his traditional Gaullist supporters in the provinces would hope. For the voters of his own heartland in central France, he will remain a respected patron of a very Gallic and benevolent stamp - and they will not be completely wrong.

M. Chirac also deserves to be taken at face value when he says that he always tried to act for the French people. Infuriating though the non-French world may often have found this, M. Chirac's presidency is distinguished by its forthright defence of his country's national interest. And who is to say that, in his efforts to make French society more cohesive, in the defiant last nuclear test he ordered, or in his critical approach to the Bush administration and his fierce opposition to the Iraq war, he was always wrong?

M. Chirac's greatest failure was in the big domestic goals he set. Successfully campaigning to become President at the third attempt, he rightly identified social exclusion as a blight. But he will leave office after 12 years with the country's social divisions just as acute as he found them. His efforts to drag France into the modern age of mobility and the free market were also thwarted, as successive laws met resistance from the streets. He lacked the conviction to drive through the reforms that were so badly needed and the political imagination that might have made them palatable. The ethical questions that dogged his career may also have discouraged him from putting his job on the line, for fear that a prison cell might await the other side.

Some would argue that the whole of M. Chirac's second term was a mistake, facilitated by the perverse first-round result of 2002, when Socialist complacency propelled the National Front leader into the second round. And it is true that he did not use his landslide victory to good effect. His instinct, though, was correct: the strength of his mandate was illusory. M. Chirac was a strong personality, but ultimately a weak President. It is time for him to leave the stage to a new generation.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior Risk Manager - Banking - London - £650

£600 - £650 per day: Orgtel: Conduct Risk Liaison Manager - Banking - London -...

Commercial Litigation Associate

Highly Attractive Package: Austen Lloyd: CITY - COMMERCIAL LITIGATION - GLOBAL...

Systems Manager - Dynamics AX

£65000 - £75000 per annum + Benefits: Progressive Recruitment: The client is a...

Service Delivery Manager (Software Development, Testing)

£40000 - £45000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A well-established software house ba...

Day In a Page

Read Next
The economy expanded by 0.8 per cent in the second quarter of 2014  

British economy: Government hails the latest GDP figures, but there is still room for skepticism over this 'glorious recovery'

Ben Chu
Comedy queen: Miranda Hart has said that she is excited about working on the new film  

There is no such thing as a middle-class laugh

David Lister
Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
10 best reed diffusers

Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

Screwing your way to the top?

Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

Meet the US Army's shooting star

Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform