Chirac, Jacques (b. 1932)

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French politician.

Jacques Chirac is the great survivor of modern French politics. Over a career spanning forty years he has held every major office, culminating in his election as president in 1995. Born in 1932 to a middle-class family, Chirac studied at the prestigious École Nationale d'Administration (ENA), the training ground of high civil servants. He became an aide to the Gaullist Prime Minister, Georges Pompidou (1911–1974), who nicknamed Chirac the "bulldozer" because of his great energy. Pompidou encouraged Chirac to enter politics and he was elected for the rural department of the Corrèze in 1967. In 1967 he was given his first ministerial post, and when Pompidou became president in 1969 Chirac was promoted to various senior ministerial positions.

After Pompidou's premature death in 1974 Chirac backed the centrist candidate Valery Giscard d'Estaing (b. 1926) over the Gaullist Jacques Chaban-Delmas (1915–2000), claming that he considered Giscard the conservative candidate best placed to prevent the victory of the Left. Many Gaullists saw this as treason, but Giscard rewarded Chirac by appointing him prime minister. Relations between the two men quickly deteriorated and in 1976 Chirac became the only prime minister of the Fifth Republic to resign rather than being dismissed by the president. Now he set about taking over the Gaullist party (renamed the Rally for the Republic, RPR), and turned it into the instrument of his ascent to power. He challenged Giscard increasingly openly, defeating his candidate for the mayoralty of Paris in 1977. Paris became Chirac's second power base along with the Corrèze. In a notorious speech in December 1978 Chirac came close to denouncing Giscard's pro-Europeanism as treason. In 1981 Chirac stood in the presidential election and came third in the first round. He studiously avoided recommending that his voters transfer their votes to Giscard in the second round. This is widely credited with having aided the Socialist François Mitterrand (1916–1996) to beat Giscard narrowly in the second round. Having betrayed Chaban in 1974 Chirac betrayed Giscard in 1981. By 1986 Mitterrand's popularity was waning, and in the parliamentary elections of that year the RPR won the largest number of votes. Mitterrand appointed Chirac prime minister, leading to the first "cohabitation" in the Fifth Republic between a president from one party and a prime minister from another. Chirac came to power committed to reversing the nationalizations carried out by the socialists. Much of this program was carried out, but he was politically outwitted by Mitterrand, who skillfully took credit for the popular measures of Chirac's government while distancing himself from the unpopular ones. When Chirac stood against Mitterrand in the presidential election of 1988 he was comfortably beaten by him in the second round. When the pattern repeated itself in 1993 and the Right again won the legislative elections Chirac held himself in reserve and let one of his colleagues become prime minister in his place. Finally in 1995 he was elected president against the Socialist Lionel Jospin (b. 1937) by a comfortable margin.

As president Chirac quickly ran into trouble. Although having promised in the elections to remedy the "social fracture" caused by unemployment, his government carried out public expenditure cuts. This led to a massive wave of strikes in the autumn of 1995 and the government had to backtrack. In April 1997 Chirac took the gamble of dissolving parliament and to everyone's surprise the Left won the elections. Chirac was now forced into "cohabitation" with Jospin as his prime minister. Having been president only two years, he found himself powerless. In the 2002 presidential election, Chirac stood again, coming top in the first round. To universal amazement, the extreme Right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen (b. 1925) pushed the Socialists into third place. In the second round, therefore, Chirac won an unprecedented majority of 82 percent as left-wing voters rallied to him in order to bar the way to Le Pen. Chirac failed to exploit this extraordinary situation. Although he won domestic popularity for opposing the Iraq War in 2003 he was increasingly dogged by allegations of corruption dating back to his period as mayor of Paris. In 2005 he called a referendum on the European constitution, recommending that people vote for it. The "no" vote won comfortably. This was widely seen as a vote more against Chirac than against the constitution. Chirac did not resign and merely replaced his prime minister. But he seemed an increasingly discredited and ageing figure, although possibly still nursing dreams of standing for president again.

The paradox of Chirac's career is that although he is excellent at achieving and holding power, he has never known what to do with it. He has been a master of the politics of patronage, and it is from this that the accusations of corruption have stemmed. There is no discernible ideological consistency in his career. If he can in any sense be called a Gaullist, it is the pragmatic Gaullism of Pompidou over the historic Gaullism of Charles de Gaulle (1890–1970). He has been variously anti-European (1978) and pro-European (2005); he talked the language of Thatcherite economics in 1986 and the language of social welfarism in 1995. It has often been remarked of Chirac that he was ideally suited to the Fourth Republic, where the executive had limited power and the name of the game was survival. In the Fifth Republic, where the executive has potentially great power, that is not enough.

See alsoFrance; Giscard d'Estaing, Valéry; Le Pen, Jean-Marie; Mitterrand, François; Paris.


Jarreau, Patrick. La France de Chirac. Paris, 1995.

Michaud, Yves. Chirac dans le texte: la parole et l'impuissance. Paris, 2004.

Tessier, Arnaud. Le Dernier septennat: 1995–2002: Jacques Chirac. Paris, 2002.

Tuppen, John. Chirac's France 1986–88: Contemporary Issues in French Society. New York, 1991.

Julian Jackson