Born November 29, 1932
President of France who led international opposition to the 2003 Iraq War
"The war, launched without the authorization of the Security Council, [has shaken] the multilateral system [a system that operates using the input of multiple countries]. The [UN] has just been through one of the most grave crises in its history."
Jacques Chirac addressing the United Nations.
French President Jacques Chirac emerged as the most outspoken opponent of the U.S.-led military invasion of Iraq in 2003. His position angered the United States and Great Britain, two of France's longtime allies, but proved very popular within France. Once the Iraq War ended, Chirac pushed for greater United Nations involvement in reconstruction efforts and a rapid transfer of political power back to the Iraqi people.
Receives political and diplomatic schooling
Jacques Rene Chirac was born in Paris on November 29, 1932. He was the only child of Francois Chirac, an aircraft company executive, and Marie-Louise (Valette) Chirac, a homemaker. He attended Lycee Carnot, a prestigious prep school, and was later accepted to the Lycee Louis-le-Grand, a school roughly equivalent in the United States to high school plus two years of college. He graduated with honors in 1950.
Chirac served briefly in the French military but soon returned to Paris on his father's advice and enrolled at the Institut d'Etudes Politiques, a political and diplomatic university. During the summer of 1953 he studied at Harvard University in Boston, Massachusetts. Eager to sample a variety of American experiences, he also worked at a Howard Johnson's restaurant in Boston and toured the country by car in his spare time.
Upon his return to France, Chirac was drafted into the French army. He was wounded in action during a colonial war in Algeria. Afterward, he enrolled at the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, an elite government service school, graduating in 1959.
Launches a long and distinguished political career
Chirac got his start in politics in 1960 as an auditor in the accounting office of the French government. In 1962 he joined the staff of Prime Minister Georges Pompidou and later became undersecretary of state for social affairs. In 1967 he was elected to the National Assembly (one of two houses of the French parliament, in which members are elected by popular vote to five-year terms).
When President Charles De Gaulle resigned in 1969, Pompidou became president and appointed Chirac secretary of state for the economy and finance. Chirac moved to several cabinet positions over the next few years. In 1973 he became minister of agriculture and rural development, and in 1974 took the position of minister of the interior. When Valery Giscard d'Estaing was elected president of France, he appointed Chirac prime minister. (In the French government, the president serves a seven-year term as head of state and controls foreign affairs. The president appoints the prime minister, who oversees the activities of parliament and concentrates on domestic affairs.)
Chirac served as prime minister from 1974 to 1976. He then formed his own political party, Rassemblement pour la Republique (Rally for the Republic). In 1977 Chirac was elected mayor of Paris. He held this position for nearly twenty years, during which time his political influence grew considerably. He successfully launched several urban renewal projects, including restoration of the Eiffel Tower and a citywide clean-up. A believer in government support for social and educational causes, he presided over the construction of libraries, the installation of public swimming pools, and the opening of no-cost children's nurseries.
Chirac ran for president of France in 1981 but was defeated by Francois Mitterrand. He was appointed prime minister of France for the second time in 1986 and served in this position until 1988. Encouraged by his popularity in Paris, Chirac made a second bid for the French presidency that year. His political views centered on lower taxes, severe punishment for terrorism and crime, the elimination of price controls, and the transfer of government-run businesses into private control. At the time, however, the French people strongly supported the nation's Socialist Party and reelected Mitterrand instead. Chirac remained mayor of Paris and an active member of parliament.
Chirac finally achieved his goal of becoming the president of France in 1995, defeating Lionel Jospin. Despite his two earlier defeats, Chirac had never lost hope. "I never doubted this rise would come," he told Time magazine. "I have been preparing [for this] a long time."
Faces problems as president of France
France's new president inherited severe social unrest. At the heart of the country's problems was unemployment. The national unemployment rate was 12.2 percent, a staggeringly high figure for an industrialized country. As president, Chirac faced the difficult task of restoring public confidence and generating enough economic growth to reduce unemployment. Critics claimed that Chirac failed to deliver on his promises regarding France's economy. The nation's unemployment rate remained among the highest in Europe throughout his first term in office, and Chirac's ratings in opinion polls stayed low as a result.
Chirac also faced several difficult foreign policy challenges during his first term. One example was the civil war in the former Yugoslavian republic of Bosnia. Terrible violence erupted between Bosnia's two main ethnic groups after the republic declared its independence in 1991. Ethnic Serbs, with the support of former Yugoslav President Slobodan Milosevic, began a systematic campaign of arrests, torture, and murder to eliminate the Muslims who formed the ethnic minority in Bosnia. This savage and bloody conflict pulled in forces from France and other European countries. Many French soldiers were killed during a UN peacekeeping mission to Bosnia.
Another foreign policy challenge involved the controversy surrounding France's decision to resume nuclear weapons testing in 1995. More than twenty nations protested against the tests, and demonstrations were staged all over the world. Opponents organized boycotts of wine and other French products. Riots broke out around the test site in Tahiti, causing millions of dollars in property damage and injuring forty people. Although the tests continued as scheduled, Chirac promised to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and use computer simulations in the future.
Second term brings disagreements over war in Iraq
In 2002 Chirac used his political skills and the popularity of his Rally for the Republic party to win reelection to a second term as president. Within a short time, he led France into a major confrontation with the United States over its plans to use military force against Iraq. Iraq had first gained international attention a dozen years earlier when it invaded its smaller neighbor, Kuwait. In 1991 France joined a U.S.-led coalition of more than thirty-five countries that sent military troops to fight in the Persian Gulf War. The coalition succeeded in forcing Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein to withdraw his army from Kuwait.
The United Nations (UN) agreement that ended the war required Iraq to destroy all of its biological, chemical, and nuclear weapons. In the decade after the war ended, however, Hussein consistently refused to honor the terms of this peace agreement. The international community tried a number of different approaches to force Hussein to cooperate with UN weapons inspectors, but instead he kicked the inspectors out of Iraq in 2000.
On September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks killed nearly three thousand people in the United States. France immediately expressed its support for the victims and their families. One French newspaper ran a large headline proclaiming "We Are All Americans." U.S. President George W. Bush responded to the attacks by launching a global war on terrorism. This effort initially focused on known terrorist groups, but it eventually expanded to include countries that Bush believed supported terrorist activities, including Iraq. Bush claimed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction and could provide such weapons to terrorists. He argued that Hussein posed an immediate threat to world security and should be removed from power in Iraq.
In September 2002 Bush challenged the United Nations to force Iraq to honor the agreement that had ended the Persian Gulf War. Bush also made it clear that the United States would act alone to disarm Iraq by force if necessary. A series of tense discussions followed in the UN Security Council. As one of five permanent members of the council, France threatened to use its veto power to prevent the UN from supporting an invasion of Iraq. Chirac soon rallied support from Russia and China, two of the council's other permanent members. The remaining two permanent members, the United States and Great Britain, strongly supported the use of military force in Iraq. But France's opposition made them decide against seeking a formal UN resolution authorizing military force. Instead, they argued that the use of force was justified under previous UN resolutions.
Leads worldwide opposition to Iraq War
Several members of the international community expressed outrage at the Bush administration's willingness to act against the will of the UN Security Council. Chirac became the unofficial leader and spokesman for the countries opposed to war in Iraq. He argued that UN weapons inspections could effectively disarm Iraq and prevent Hussein from threatening world security. He also claimed that by acting alone, the United States would defy international law, reduce the power of the United Nations, and increase political instability around the world.
Some analysts pointed to other possible reasons for France's opposition to war in Iraq. For example, France is home to five million Muslims, the largest concentration in Europe. Many Muslims around the world criticized the U.S. plan to invade Iraq, viewing it as an attack upon a Muslim nation. Therefore, Chirac may have worried about angering this segment of the French population. In addition, French companies have acquired oil from Iraq for decades, and this oil is important to France's economy. Total Petroleum, France's biggest company and the fourth-largest oil corporation in the world, held development rights to many southern Iraq oil fields. Finally, France loaned billions of dollars to Iraq over the years and faced the possibility that it would never recover the money if Hussein's government were overthrown.
All of these factors made Chirac's opposition to the war hugely popular within France. After a rocky first term and low numbers in French opinion polls, Chirac finally struck a chord with his countrymen. His approval ratings soared to 65 percent, up from 19 percent only a year before.
Despite widespread international opposition and a lack of UN support, U.S. military forces invaded Iraq on March 19, 2003. Chirac was outraged. "No one can act alone in the name of all and no one can accept the anarchy [chaos] of a society without rules," he said in a speech before the Unite Nations. "The war, launched without the authorization of the Security Council, [has shaken] the multilateral system [a system that operates using the input of multiple countries]. The [UN] has just been through one of the most grave crises in its history."
The U.S.-led invasion of Iraq succeeded in removing Hussein from power after only a few weeks of fighting. On May 1, 2003, Bush announced the end of major combat operations. The U.S. military remained in Iraq as an occupying force and began working to rebuild the country and install a new government.
Pushes for a quick transfer of power to Iraqis
As the reconstruction of Iraq got underway, France once again found itself at odds with the United States. Chirac insisted that total control of Iraq be transferred as quickly as possible to the Iraqi people and stressed that the UN must assume a "key role" in the transition. He argued on CNN.com that it was "up to the United Nations to assist with the gradual transfer of administrative and economic responsibilities to the present Iraqi institutions according to a realistic timetable and to help the Iraqis draft a constitution and hold elections."
Chirac proposed a two-stage plan for the transfer of power from the U.S. military occupation forces to an independent Iraqi government. The first stage would be a "symbolic transfer" of power from the United States to an Iraqi Governing Council. The second stage, implemented six to nine months later, would involve the actual handing over of control. France promised to train Iraqi police officers and soldiers to aid in the peaceful transition.
But U.S. leaders were determined to maintain control over the reconstruction process. President Bush wanted the UN to play a role in providing food, medicine, and humanitarian aid to the people of Iraq, but he declared that the United States would handle Iraq's political transition.
Views on the Iraq War divide Europe
Throughout its opposition of the war, France enjoyed the support of Germany and its leader, Chancellor Gerhard Schroder. But Great Britain and its leader, Prime Minister Tony Blair (see entry), stood firmly on the side of the United States. The war in Iraq thus divided Europe. On September 23, 2003, France, Britain, and Germany held a one-day summit in Berlin in an attempt to settle their differences. "Whatever the differences there have been about the conflict, we all want to see a stable Iraq," Blair told CNN after the meeting.
But Schroder and Chirac felt that significant disagreements remained over the transfer of power to the Iraqi people. Like Chirac, Schroder believed that the United Nations should be given a more prominent role in the quick transition of power to an Iraqi authority. Richard Whitman, a professor at the University of Westminster in London, called the meeting a "major disappointment." He told CNN that they had "hoped for a real push towards some firm agreement, at least among European states. It is very difficult to see where we are going to see some common ground."
Chirac's staunch opposition to the Iraq War led some critics to call him anti-American. Some people in the United States organized boycotts of French goods in protest against Chirac's policies. "When I hear people say I'm anti-American, I'm sad—not angry, but really sad," Chirac told Time. In fact, the French president has long shown a taste for American culture. "When you're in the U.S. with Chirac, there's always a problem," Prime Minister Alain Juppe told Time. "As soon as he sees a fast-food place, he has to stop the car, rush up to the counter and order a hamburger." Chirac also enjoys American music and film and counted the legendary American actor Gregory Peck among his closest friends.
Chirac's opposition to the Iraq War led to a huge increase in his popularity in France. But this increase soon proved to be temporary. His popularity began to decline again after the war ended, as the French people shifted their focus back to domestic issues.
Through victories and setbacks, Chirac has enjoyed unwavering support from his wife, Bernadette. The couple lives in the Elysee Palace, a beautifully decorated eighteenth-century home reserved for French presidents. They have three children. Chirac credits his youngest daughter, Claude, for his election to the presidency of France. She helped him appeal to young voters during his 1995 campaign by organizing town meetings where he could discuss his goals with the people of France.
Where to Learn More
"Chirac: No Veto on Iraq Resolution." CNN.com,http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/europe/09/22/chirac.iraq/index.htmlhttp://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/europe/09/22/chirac.iraq/index.html (accessed on March 26, 2004).
"Chirac: U.S. Action Brought Crisis." CNN.com,http://www.cnn.com/2003/WORLD/europe/09/23/sprj.irq.un.chirac/index.html (accessed March 26, 2004).
Dickey, Christopher. "Iraq's Mr. Popularity: The French Have Staked Out a Position as the Un-America." Newsweek, October 6, 2003.
Jeffrey, Simon. "War with Iraq." Guardian Unlimited, October 4, 2002.
Lawday, David. "The Gallic Spanner in the U.S. War Works: France and America Are Almost Alone These Days in Believing They Have a Civilizing Mission in the World." New Statesman, February 24, 2003.
Turback, Gary. "With France Like These, Who Needs Enemies?" VFW Magazine, October 2003.
Jacques Chirac (born 1932) was an influential French technocrat under Presidents Charles deGaulle and Georges Pompidou. He served as prime minister under President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing (1974-1976), was an unsuccessful presidential candidate in 1981, became prime minister again in 1986 under President François Mitterrand, and was elected President of France in 1995.
Jacques Chirac was born in Paris on November 29, 1932. Young Jacques had a meteoric career. Like many upper middle class Parisians he first headed for the bureaucracy. He graduated from the prestigious Institute for Political Studies and the National School for Administration, one of the training grounds for the French elite.
In 1959 Chirac began his bureaucratic career in accounting at the Cour des Comptes. Like many bureaucrats of his day, he found his own commitment to growth and modernization coincided with the policies of the new Gaullist government. He was tapped to join a politician's personal staff, in this case Prime Minister Pompidou's, in 1962. For the remainder of Pompidou's tenure, Chirac was a valuable economic adviser who played a critical role in the dramatic economic growth France was experiencing. Chirac entered the electoral arena in 1965, when he was elected to the municipal council of the tiny Corrèzian town of Sainte-Féréol, his family's home town. In 1967 he was elected to the National Assembly from that area and was repeatedly re-elected after that.
Chirac was also appointed to a series of cabinet posts, beginning as secretary of state for social affairs in charge of employment in 1967. After that he served as secretary of state for the economy and finance (1968-1971), minister delegate to the premier for relations with Parliament (1971-1972), minister of agriculture and rural development (1972-1974), and minister of the interior (February-May 1974).
Appointed Prime Minister
Chirac's political influence within the Gaullist party grew during those years. His personal political career really took off with the 1974 presidential election. President Georges Pompidou died while in office that April. Chirac supported the successful Valéry Giscard d'Estaing in the ensuing elections rather than the Gaullist Jacques Chaban-Delmas.
The new president named Chirac prime minister. And, despite some grumbling from the old Gaullist "barons," he took control of the Gaullist party, which had been left in a shambles following Chaban's disastrous showing in the elections.
His years as prime minister were difficult. He and President Giscard had different styles and images of the proper role for the state. Chirac, in particular, had difficulty with the president's frequently expressed desire to limit the role of the state in guiding the economy. In addition, Prime Minister Chirac's strong ambitions often conflicted with the president's. Finally, in 1976, the president requested and received Prime Minister Chirac's resignation.
Member of the Opposition
That December Chirac restructured the Gaullist party, calling it the Rally for the Republic (RPR), and became the "new" party's first leader as a first step in his own presidential campaign. In 1977 he was elected the first mayor of Paris since the commune of 1870-1871. He used that office, which he held until 1995, as a vehicle to criticize the national government and to demonstrate his own ability to head a team that had remarkable success in redeveloping much of the city and improving its social services. He also headed the RPR slate in the 1978 legislative elections and continued his critical support of the Giscard-Barre government from then until the end of Giscard's seven year term in 1981.
That year, Jacques Chirac chose to run in the presidential elections and did rather well, winning 18 percent of the first ballot vote. At the second ballot, he only gave Giscard lukewarm support, which undoubtedly helped contribute to the president's defeat by President François Mitterrand. Chirac remained one of the leading opposition politicians. When the Socialist Party of President Mitterrand lost its majority in the National Assembly in the 1986 election, Chirac became prime minister again in a power-sharing agreement called cohabitation. It was the first time in the 28 years of the Fifth Republic that the French government was divided between a conservative parliament, led by Chirac, and a socialist president, Mitterrand. In 1988 Chirac ran for president a second time and was again defeated by Mitterrand. Mitterrand's election ended cohabitation and Chirac's term as prime minister. In 1995, Mitterrand, in declining health, decided not to seek another term in office. In the May election to replace him, Chirac won nearly 53 percent of the vote to capture the presidency on his third attempt.
President of France
As the President of France, Chirac faced the daunting challenge of restoring public confidence and generating higher levels of economic growth to decrease the country's alarming unemployment rate. In addition to creating more jobs, Chirac also promised to lower taxes, overhaul the education system, and create a volunteer army. The President also signalled his intention of continuing Mitterrand's move toward European integration and a single European currency.
Chirac's popularity dropped, however, when, later in 1995, France restarted its nuclear weapons test program in the South Pacific. Over 20 countries officially protested, demonstrators across the globe took to the streets, and international boycotts of wine and other French products were erected. Riots erupted in Tahiti, near the test site, injuring 40 people and causing millions of dollars in property damage. Chirac defended his decision by claiming that Mitterrand had prematurely ceased testing during his term in office. Chirac promised, however, to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty provided the current round of testing offered sufficient data to make future computer simulations feasible.
Chirac's closest political advisor was his daughter Claude who handled the President's communications, organized his trips, and played an important role in his election.
Despite the serious burdens that Chirac shouldered as French President, he embraced the lighter side of life and had a penchant for Americana that probably began in 1953 when he traveled to the United States and attended summer courses at Harvard. To help support himself, the 20-year-old Chirac worked as a soda jerk and dishwasher in a Howard Johnson's restaurant. The New York Times, speaking of Chirac's common touch, reported, "He prefers a cold Mexican beer to a glass of wine, and a genuine American meal like a hot turkey sandwich with gravy to a pseudo-Escoffier meal. While he strongly supports the law that requires French television stations to show mainly French films, … friends say he would rather watch a Gary Cooper western than a mannered French romance." Chirac's habit of frequenting McDonald's and Burger King restaurants led Prime Minister Alain Juppé to joke in Time, "As soon as he sees a fast-food place, he has to stop the car, rush up to the counter, and order a hamburger."
For an article on Chirac's presidency, see Paris bureau chief, Craig R. Whitney's article in the New York Times, February 11, 1996.
None of Jacques Chirac's books have been translated into English. The best material on him and his political circumstances can be found in Jean Charlot, The Gaullist Phenomenon (London, 1971) and in Frank L. Wilson, French Political Parties Under the Fifth Republic (1982). □