Lovable Old Rogue
Jacques Chirac died last week. Minister for 3 years. Mayor of Paris for 18 years. Prime Minister twice. President of France 1995-20007.
In the wake of his death, pollster Ifop asked who was France’s greatest 5th Republic President. Chirac came the reply. First equal with de Gaulle. Both 30% support. [Polling Note: Macron got 7%.] But haven’t times changed. A 2013 Ifop poll showed Chirac with just 10%, behind de Gaulle (30%), Mitterand (28%), even Sarkozy (11%). Distance evidently creates fondness as memories dim of Chirac’s honorific title: First Fifth Republic President Convicted Of A Crime.
President Macron duly declared 30 September a national day of mourning. A minute’s silence, half-mast flags, teachers devoting a lesson to Chirac’s memory.
The burial itself was ‘Family only’. But the preceding service was attended by 80 heads of state and government, and France’s political leaders. Marine le Pen stayed away. She wrote, the Chiracs having asked her to stay away: ‘We take account, with regret, of the Chirac family’s refusal to respect republican practice’. She will, doubtless, have regretted the chance to schmooze Putin and Orban.
President Pompidou called Chirac ‘mon bulldozer‘. In 1968’s General Strike, Pompidou sent Chirac to negotiate with the union leaders of the Communist CGT. He had a gun in his pocket.
But the tributes to Chirac largely concentrated on his special ability to relate to the French. He appeared, after all, to be the one President who genuinely relished his endless hours at the annual Salon d’Agriculture rite, caressing bovine bums and then, trencherman that he was, consuming their innards.
Chirac loved food, drink and (as all the photos show) cigarettes. He loved sumo wrestlers and the indigenous cultures of Africa/Asia/Oceania/Americas [the Quai Branly Museum in Paris bears his name], and he genuinely seemed to enjoy meeting people. In every sense of the phrase he took pleasure in squeezing the flesh.
In his latter years, French conservatives increasingly loved him. They forgave his ill-timed Presidential decision to call early Parliamentary elections. That ended badly: a Socialist Government was elected and so began 5 years of difficult cohabitation … and the introduction of the still-applicable 35-hour working week, down from 39. That was before Chirac could ‘Unite the Nation’ by defeating ultra-right extremist Jean-Marie Le Pen and so win his 2nd Presidential term.
Emmanuel Macron’s TV tribute to Chirac seemed almost cloying – but maybe he intuited there’d be queues, a kilometre long, of those wishing to pay respects, sign the Book of condolence and take their ‘I was there’ selfie. Macron intoned: ‘We, the French, have today lost a statesman whom we loved as much as he loved us’, thus referring to Chirac’s final Presidential address: ‘This France which I love as much as I love you.’
Harvard academic Goldhammer called Macron’s speech ‘lachrymose’, doing an insightful hatchet job on Macron: ‘[Chirac] had a common touch, which he often laid on a bit thick, but perhaps laying it on thick is part of the common touch that so eludes Macron, who lays it on thick in other ways (as in his speech mourning Chirac).
But it really is rather difficult to judge what vox pop really thought about Chirac. Certainly the TV audience wasn’t much interested. Public TV station France 2‘s Chirac memorial was a repeat of a 2-part documentary (The Young Wolf and The Old Lion) first shown in 2006. It then had an audience of 5.4m. This time round, 1.6m watched. Commercial TV TF1 cleared its lunchtime schedule for a tribute … and got their lowest share of the TV audience since July. President Macron’s tribute was watched by nearly 12m. That was probably enough for most.
Inevitably, Chirac will be remembered outside France as the only dissonant voice, among world leaders, to the US-led 1992 Iraq invasion. Chirac was resolutely opposed to the Bush-Blair duumvirate. That period, as leader of Old Europe, fleetingly earned Chirac 90% support within France. And that’s what even chimes in France today. Asked what most marked Chirac’s 12 Years A President, 71% told Ifop it was his opposition to the Iraq war.
A week before the Iraq invasion, Chirac said ‘War is always a last resort, is always proof of failure, and is always the worst solution because it leads to death and misery.’ He also said any Iraq invasion would be a ‘nightmare’. And it’s perhaps worth recalling (thanks to Wikileaks) that François Hollande (then Socialist Party General Secretary) went to the American Ambassador regretting Chirac’s ‘gratuitous obstruction’. Last week, demonstrating his balance, ex-President Hollande paid tribute to Chirac as a ‘humanist … who always denounced xenophobia, racism and anti-semitism … [and who] refused to engage our country in the Iraq War whose tragic consequences we measure today.’
President Chirac’s practical achievements were modest. He made sure no successor would ever serve as long by reducing the 7-year Presidential term to 5. He also got rid of military service. Those 2 changes were each chosen by 40% of Ifop’s sample to be the highlight of Chirac’s 12 years.
He also recognised the complicity of the French State (police and public servants) in the acts of the collaborationist Vichy government – especially the 1942 Vel d’Hiv Round-Up when (according to the police Prefecture) 13,152 Jews (including 4,051 children) were arrested, starved in internment camps around Paris and transported to Auschwitz. Chirac was the first French President to apologise for ‘the mistakes of the French state’. That statement of France’s complicity was seen as his most important achievement by 32% of Ifop‘s sample. While 33% cited his 2002 Johannesburg speech on climate change: ‘Our house is burning and we’re looking in another direction.’
Towards the end of his life, Chirac’s decades of misdeeds finally caught up with him. In 2011, he had his days in Court. France finally got confirmation of his sleazy, criminal activities when Paris Mayor from 1977 to 1995. Party workers given fake jobs, kickbacks for public contracts, local elections rigged. Satirical puppet show, Les Guignols, had long since characterised him Supermenteur (Superliar). Only his illness kept Chirac out of jail, while his long-term N° 2, ex-Prime Minister Alain Juppé, paid part of the price for that corrupt Paris operation and was forced to resign as Bordeaux Mayor.
But that was all so long ago. And over his final years the myth of The Man Who Loved The People would be nurtured.
There were obviously pictures galore to accompany all the written hommages to what now seems a very distant world. Conservative Figaro has a good set under the semi-ironic title ‘Style icon’ – it’s striking to see how far apart from each other he and Mme Chirac could sit on a sofa with him still having his arm around her shoulders. Huffington Post has some great photos (a man from another time and world) under the title ‘Abracadabrantesque political icon’ [that wonderful first word, initially ‘popularised’ by the poet Rimbaud, was adopted by Chirac when asked on TV about illegal funding of his political party’ – meaning ‘utterly improbable’ it’s the single word most associated with Chirac.]
But surely the best Chirac photo is one that has to be from a 40’s film noir. Two rogues side-by-side. One loveable, one far less so. ‘I want you to come and work for me’ said older rogue to younger. And so he did.
Much–Less-Lovable Old Rogues
Some of these rogues have recently been able to enjoy their own days in the legal sun and reflect upon still more challenging days to come.
So, starting at the top.
That younger rogue above – the juve lead in Chirac’s film noir – has lately been looking seriously morose. And it may not have entirely been down to grief following Chirac’s death. His deep pensiveness was entirely appropriate. France’s highest Appeal Court (Cour de Cassation) confirmed that ex-President Sarkozy will follow his mentor into Court … not just once, but twice. Remember, this wins Sarko his special accolade of First 5th Republic President To Be Charged With Corruption.
We now know Sarko’s not only to be tried for influence-peddling and attempting to bribe a senior judge with the promise of a plush judging sinecure in Monaco – that’s the delicious case where Sarko and his lawyer bought burner phones, adopted aliases and acted like plonkers. He’s also going to face loud legal music for illegal campaign spending in The Bygmalion Affair. That was the comparatively minor matter of Sarko having spent €43m on his Presidential Election campaign in lieu of the €22m legal limit: he still lost.
Sarko had the chutzpah to claim that since he’d already been found guilty of having overspent €360K, which he’d repaid, he was being tried twice for the same matter. But the Cour de Cassation felt that the vast system of fake invoices – largely paying for endless public meetings organised by the Bygmalion company – merited a further trial. [And, since good news comes in threes, Sarko will have been thrilled to hear that on 17 October he’ll find out whether The 2007 Sarkozy Election Campaign Funded By Colonel Gadhaffi Affair still has legs. The odds? It’ll probably run.]
1 October was a good (bad?) day for rogues. The self-same day that the Cour de Cassation delivered its definitive verdict on Sarkozy’s Bygmalion appeal, others were just beginning their own Trial Trail.
Former Prime Minister Balladur (and ex-Defence Minister Léotard) learned they’re both to be tried for diverting commissions on sales of frigates to Saudi Arabia and submarines to Pakistan. But they’ll ‘benefit’ from being tried by the Cour de Justice de la République, a special Court for trying Ministers and ex-Ministers, which President Macron’s pledged to get rid of as part of his modernising programme. Should Balladur/Léotard protest too much, they may find they’re in front of a common or garden Court like everyone else in today’s post.
Those sales commission monies (c. €1.5million) were allegedly used to fund Balladur’s unsuccessful attempt to be the Right’s Presidential candidate in 1995. Balladur ended up 3rd behind Chirac and Jospin. [In the Good Old Days, dearly beloved, those Presidential Elections were always a final apocalyptic Left v Right run-off.]
Balladur and Chirac – despite, in Chirac’s words, being ‘friends for 30 years’ – fell out. Chirac displayed his killer ability to be a ‘Great political crocodile’ (Le Point) and Sarko (then a Balladur supporter) was banished for years. Messrs Balladur and Léotard (of course) deny all charges.
But to show there’s often far more serious stuff at the back of cases of international corruption, the issue of kickback commissions only came to light after 11 French naval engineers working in Karachi were killed in an explosion. It’s thought they may have been murdered as revenge for the cessation of secret commissions after Chirac beat Balladur, won the Presidency and cancelled the payments.
Deeply-Unlikeable Criminal Rogues
Mr and Mrs Balkany are such a pair. These uncharming septuagenarians have, for nearly two decades, run a private fiefdom. If a Parisian near-suburb, Levallois-Perret, can so be described. But it’s seemingly relatively easy when you’re Mayor and Deputy Mayor. Both were accused of long-term corruption and tax fraud. Mr B got his come-uppance last month when sentenced to 4 years. He was sent straight prisonwards, pending an appeal, it being felt there was a high risk of his doing a runner. Mrs B copped 3 years.
But by one of those delicious turns of that wheel of fortune that favours the corrupt, Mrs B didn’t have to go directly to prison. Rather, she was allowed to Pass Go. And, while doing so, she received the Mayoral baton from her temporarily indisposed hubbie. You’ll understand. That’s just while her own appeal works its way through the system.
As the Levallois Mairie press release tongue-in-cheekily put it: ‘Mr Balkany is temporarily unable to carry out his Mayoral functions’. And then the press release reminds everyone that ‘No public money was involved in this affair’. Indeed. Unlike the other rogues mentioned in today’s Rogue’s Gallery Mr and Mrs B. both defrauded the tax authorities on their own personal account. And that’s all while they maintained Levallois-Perret’s enviable position as Most Indebted French Town, in terms of debt/inhabitant.
And finally. To round up this month’s rogues and their rogueish behaviours, there were also:
- National Assembly President, Richard Ferrand (a Macronite, ex-Socialist stalwart) is going to be charged in relation to the complex matter (revealed in May 2017 by satirical weekly Le Canard Enchainé) of the purchase of a small property by Ferrand’s partner and its lease to a non-profit organisation … of which Ferrand was himself the boss. Referring to the presumption of innocence, the President’s spokesperson made it clear Ferrand still has the President’s confidence [and don’t forget the PM too, shouted his entourage]. So that’s all right then. [Candidate Macron’s statement that ‘The principal danger for democracy [is] the continuing lack of integrity among politicians’, plus the fact that President Macron’s first 2 laws were entitled ‘Making politics more moral’ are all from another epoch entirely.
- Macronite (ex-Socialist) Deputy J-J Bridey is being investigated (after revelations in online Mediapart) for having illegally spent some €60k+ of public monies.
- And to show (as ever) continuing political balance in this blog, it’s a delight to be able finally to announce definitive dates for the trial of Mr F Fillon (Sarkozy’s Prime Minister for 5 years and the Right’s Presidential candidate in 2017), his wife Mrs P Fillon and Fillon’s replacement Deputy. All will be revealed in the Million Euro FakeJobsGate Affair (misuse of public funds and embezzlement) starting 24 Feb in the Paris High Court, and running till 11 March. Seats (alas) not reservable.