Jacques Chirac’s Presidential Memoir: A Sarkozy Smack-Down

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So much for locking his lips and throwing away the key. Just four years after leaving the Elysée with a pledge to never, ever comment on his successor and erstwhile foe Nicolas Sarkozy, former French President Jacques Chirac is now dishing some less than flattering views on France’s current head of state—and only 11 months ahead of the nation’s next presidential election. In excerpts from the second tome of Chirac’s memoirs published by a French newsweekly Wednesday, the former neo-Gaullist leader evokes a troubled relationship with Sarkozy, who is once again depicted as undisciplined and over-confident, and described as being“impetuous, nervous (and having) doubts about nothing, especially himself”. So much for saying rien when you’ve got rien nice to say.

The 624-page “The Presidential Years” tome–covering the 1995-2007 period of the Chirac presidency–contains only limited sections on Sarkozy, yet Chirac’s slicing comments and recollections about his successor make it clear he’s delivering the long-simmering payback that he vowed he’d keep to himself. Fans of French politics will recall that while Sarkozy was for decades considered a fanatic Chirac loyalist and political son to the French conservative leader, the fallout from Sarkozy’s defection to a rightist candidate’s rival presidential bid in 1995 generated a mutual hatred between the two men that has ebbed and flowed since. Though those relations appeared to partially normalize as Chirac bowed out of public life and steadily Sarkozy rose to the peak of French power, the former president makes it clear in his memoirs he still doesn’t trust—or even much respect—the man he referred to as “the traitor” for years.

“There are too many dark areas between Nicolas Sarkozy and me,” Chirac writes of their relationship, offering a character assault cum explanation for why he continually refused to name Sarkozy as prime minister even after the younger man’s soaring popularity forced the president to appoint his enemy to other posts in his conservative government. “Many (advisers) counseled against it, judging Nicolas Sarkozy insufficiently dependable according to what our institutions demand a president of the Republic  expect from a prime minister: loyalty, and total transparency in their relationship. It would have never worked.”

Other things, by contrast, have worked out fairly well for the former leader of late. And Chirac uses other twists of recent history to buff his own place and record for posterity–intentionally or not, at Sarkozy’s expense. Though Chirac left office with one of the lowest approval ratings in French history, Sarkozy’s current record-setting low scores are even worse. Meanwhile, public longing for the more paternal, calm, cordial and unifying Chirac style—one that contrasts with Sarkozy’s aggressive, divisive, and perpetually changing leadership–have helped fuel Chirac’s rise to the top of the list of best-loved public figures in France. Within that context, Chirac harkens back to the serious differences between the two men that prevented him from tapping Sarkozy as premier–and uses those as a reminder of how his positions as president allowed France to avoid much of chaos, instability, and conflict it now faces.

“He’s an Atlanticist, and I’m not,” Chirac writes, winking at the oft-noted assumption that the pro-American, pro-NATO, Bush-friendly Sarkozy might well have joined the war effort in Iraq Chirac forcefully opposed had Sarkozy been president in 2003–much as Sarkozy rallied NATO allies to unleash the ongoing Libyan intervention. “He’s a lot more economically (free-market than I am. He’s for positive discrimination, and I’m radically opposed to it.”

With Sarkozy’s expected re-election bid not even a year off, Chirac also takes aim at both historical and current causes of public displeasure with Sarkozy—foremost, his willingness to score political points via controversial and conflict-producing positions that generate loud media attention. Most recently, those have come through expulsions of Roma, debates on national identity, the place of Islam in France, a legal ban of the burqa, tightening the Schengen accords, and other initiatives critics say seek to seduce extreme-right voters by stigmatizing minorities and Muslims.

Back when he was Interior Minister and accelerating his rise towards his victorious 2007 presidential run, Sarkozy worked the same strategy with visits to disenfranchised housing projects, where he used a racially loaded term to denounce troublesome youths as “scum”, and pledge to eradicate disruptive and criminal elements with language evocative of ethnic cleansing. Now, sounding again like the father of the nation, Chirac scolds Sarkozy for sacrificing social unity and calm in his hurry to score rapid personal political gain.

“One must avoid media appearances or falsely definitive or reassuring statements that really only aim to stigmatize (and) exacerbate antagonisms,” Chirac writes—doubtless aware that pundits have blamed Sarkozy’s more recent controversial offensives for the spectacular rise of Marine Le Pen, leader of the extreme-right National Front party that Chirac relentlessly battled as a threat to French democracy. “I don’t harbor personal antipathy against him, but we’re not in agreement on the essentials.”

For good measure, Chirac even undermines Sarkozy’s most powerful (and at times counter-productive) political talent: his strength as an orator and verbal pugilist ready to slap down detractors and opponents, both real and perceived. Recalling his vexation at being on the receiving end of insulting “little phrases” Sarkozy dropped about  in not-so-cryptic swipes in the press, Chirac remembers planning dish back a little of the same dirt to his minister—only to reject such trash talk as, well, undignified of a French president. “Responding to that, at least in public, could have only lead to a confrontation that I continue to believe, wouldn’t have been worthy of a president of the Republic,” Chirac writes, issuing a backhanded reminder of criticism that Sarkozy’s behavior and outbursts have sullied his office over the past four years. “That would have inevitably happened with Sarkozy.”

His deep unpopularity and dismally low approval ratings reflecting widespread belief among voters that Sarkozy’s leadership has been personally, professionally, and politically sub par, the current master of the Elysée is probably wishing his presidential predecessor had kept his lip locked and ruminations to himself as promised–at least for the next 11 months ahead of France’s general election.