Jacques Chirac’s Death: Europe Grieves A Gaullist Memory

Head of State, Prime Minister, Minister and Mayor of Paris, Jacques Chirac passed away on Thursday 26 September, aged 86. He has held the highest ranks during a long political career. Cautious in domestic politics, Chirac was able to impose his mark abroad with a foreign policy echoing that of Charles De Gaulle. A foreign policy to which Chirac held strong opposition, alongside German Chancellor Gerhard Shröder, was the U.S. intervention in Iraq in 2003. From Vladimir Putin and Angela Merkel, to Saad Harirri and Jean-Claude Juncker, world leaders welcome the memory of France’s former president.

One of the most notable tributes to Chirac has been that of Vladimir Putin’s. During an interview given to the Financial Times earlier this year, he explained that Chirac was the foreign leader who had impressed him the most: ‘a true intellectual, a real teacher,’ he said. Following the announcement of his death, the Kremlin’s executive described Chirac as ‘wise and visionary […], having always defended the interests of his country’. Chirac’s diplomacy was undeniably that of a country ‘faithful to its alliances but not vassal’, to use Chirac’s Foreign Minister Hubert Vedrine’s words.

Chirac’s foreign policy was carefully crafted in tone and style with that of predecessor François Mitterand, especially regarding former Yugoslavia, to which he was very responsive when it came down to Serbian abuse. Chirac knew that in the well-codified world of diplomacy, the unexpected is what has ceaselessly proven to mark spirits. His 1996 altercation with Israeli border guards seeking to limit his freedom of movement during his visit reveals just that. Naturally, the Arab world has shown its affliction to the news of Chirac’s death. Lebanese Prime Minister Sa’ad Hariri, whose father was a close friend of the former president, stated, ‘today, one of the greatest men in France has passed away’, recalling that the former French president ‘stood by the Palestinian people and their just causes’ whilst also supporting Lebanon ‘in the most difficult circumstances.’ The King of Morocco, Mohammed VI, praised a ‘great statesman’ but also ‘a great friend who actively contributed to consolidating friendship between our two communities, by erecting them in an exceptional partnership.’ African heads of state paid tribute to ‘the advocate of Africa,’ as declared by former Senegalese President Abdoulaye Wade. 

Within the European Union, reactions have also been strong. Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said he was ‘touched and devastated,’ and former Belgian Prime Minister agreed that it was ‘his commitment to the European project that has made him the statesman we will miss.’

In Germany, the two chancellors that Chirac met when he was at the Elysée Palace paid him a deep tribute. ‘For him, it was obvious that Europe could only work so long as Germany and France were united’, responded Gerhard Schröder, whose relations with Chirac were initially complicated between 1998 and 2002, during the first mandate of the Social-Democratic Chancery, especially given their differences on a common agricultural policy. Their joint opposition to the war in Iraq brought them closer. ‘His most important gesture has been the 60th anniversary of the D-Day, in 2004 – he invited me to the Normandy ceremonies as a representative of Germany’, remembered Schröder. Angela Merkel declared that ‘For us Germans, and for me as a chancellor, [Chirac] was a partner and an extraordinary friend.’ Beyond these tributes, however, is an ambivalence for the memory left by Chirac in Germany, particularly amongst the German left and ecologist groups, who are far from forgetting his decision to resume nuclear tests in 1995. These aroused strong emotions in a country where atomic opposition increasingly reaffirmed itself as a strong political cleavage since the 1970s.

Hours following the announcement of Chirac’s passing, Emmanuel Macron saluted a ‘man whom we loved as much as he loved us’. Respected, admired, and loved, by most, Jacques Chirac was and will keep being a ‘familiar face’ representing a ‘certain idea of France.’

Anne-Sophie Neyra