Nicolas Sarkozy was handed the keys to the Elysee Palace as his predecessor, Jacques Chirac, left the ancient building in which he lived for 12 years for the house of Saad Hariri in Voltaire Boulevard where he will stay temporarily.
While Sarkozy is the first French President since World War II to take over the reins of power from a president of the same party, he successfully managed to appear as a man of estrangement and transformation. This is despite the fact that Sarkozy was a powerful minister of interior in the government of President Chirac as well as president of the UMP (Union Pour Un Mouvement Populaire) that dominated the bi-chambers of the parliament.
The relationship between the two men was not a friendly one as everyone knows, yet they coexisted within accurately defined limits and eventually met after Chirac had clearly announced his support for Sarkozy in the recent elections. In return, Sarkozy spared him no praise or words of courtesy when he formerly described him as the powerless old man.
Indeed, the two men belonged to the same political track and were both similar in terms of high ambition and rapid ascent, yet they differed on everything else.
What is the link between the descendant of ancient French aristocrats who was born a politician within a family that advocated De Gaulle policies on one hand and the son of the Hungarian immigrant who was introduced to the French political milieu through partisan political activity and experience in the field?
If the opponents of Sarkozy (and they are many) admitted his obvious qualities that are clear to observers such as his intelligence, importance and extraordinary capacity for organization, his friends (and they are few) will be the first to deny his competence in governance though they admit his effective tactical sense that he is keen to conceal with an air of artificial naïveté that is useful for him in confusing his rivals and overcoming them.
Chirac did not possess the charisma and radiation of General De Gaulle, nor did he enjoy the cultural sense of Pompidou or Mitterrand nor the skills and technical expertise of Giscard d’Estaing. Thus he does not seem to be in accordance with other politicians of his generation, however, those who knew him closely say that he is concerned with hiding his cultural heritage. He is the only president in the history of the Fifth Republic who had not written an intellectual book throughout his life except for two books published in the past year which included speeches that he had given during his presidency. He had often made mistakes in his quotations and misused terminology and concepts. He had even committed many grammatical mistakes in lingual expressions. He did not befriend writers or authors or visit libraries in the way that [Francois] Mitterrand did. Yet no one equals Chirac in terms of his knowledge of complex Asian art forms, or his knowledge of the history of Japan, or his knowledge of drawings of Buddhist temples and Chinese cooking.
The former Spanish Prime Minister, Jose Maria Aznar, had written about Chirac in his memoirs that were published two years ago. He stated that he saw only one trait in Chirac and that was that he is a food lover and is of good health. Nevertheless, at the end of his book he mentioned him again saying that behind his obscene smile, Chirac hid an unexpected ability to maneuver and to achieve his objectives in the shortest and least expensive manner.
The French say that Chirac is the only French politician who had lived a full forty years at the expense of the French treasury, ever since he entered the Pompidou government in the 1960s and until he took up the post of prime minister at the age of forty. He had kept his position as Mayor of Paris from 1977 until he was voted president of the Republic in May 1995. Chirac had built his practical strategy upon two concepts, leading a coup against his political camp and combating his opponents from within their ideological ground.
It is for this reason that he was famous among the French political public with his tendency to betray his benefactors and mount upon their ruins. In this context, we recall his coup against the De Gaulle trend in the 1974 elections when he supported the candidate of the center, Giscard d’Estaing, against Jacques Chapan-Delmas. He later turned against d’Estaing who had admitted him to the premiership in the 1981 elections, and challenged him as a competitor. His action had facilitated the success of leftist candidate Mitterrand; a fact that generated a crisis of confidence between the two men that later turned into firm rage and persistent hatred.
The same man who had rivaled the leftist current through his social slogans in 1995, and was overwhelmed with extensive talk about the need to bridge class differences and bring justice to marginalized groups is the same man who had adopted a right-wing extremist policy to be able to adapt to the conditions of European integration. However, he ended up isolated in the presidential palace compelled to bear five consecutive years of Lionel Jospin’s socialist government.
The interesting paradox in the course of Chirac is that he had ruled for only two years of his first presidential round and succeeded with the votes of the leftist party in its second round as he challenged the extreme right-wing leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who surprised all parties by entering the second round of elections.
French voters had chosen Chirac as president of the country in 2002 with an overwhelming majority of over 80%, yet they had expressed their rejection and resentment of him in the referendum on the European constitution that was organized in May 2005. Their protest was one that was more against his ruling than a negative vote upon the proposed document. And while Chirac’s popularity was plummeting, he still kept full dominance upon decision-making centers thanks to the thriving and assuring parliamentary majority. He also managed to control the constitutional council and judiciary councils that he had appointed. On the day that he left office, President Chirac was regarded as the oldest president in the West, outliving two British prime ministers, three Germans chancellors and two American presidents.
Chirac leaves the presidential palace after 12 years that are regarded by the French as 12 difficult years. Perhaps the latest irony in the political course of Chirac is that his popularity doubled on the day that he left office, according to opinion polls. It is as if the French had forgiven the man, about whom Mitterrand once said, “He speaks like he jogs and smiles only to stab… but he is friend.”