Author Guillaume Guguen, Ségolène Allemandou
Photos Patrick Kovarik - AFP, Gérard Fouet - AFP, Georges Gobet - AFP, Paul J. Richard - AFP, Jiji Press - AFP, Eric Feferberg - AFP, Michel Euler - AFP, Jim Hollander - AFP, François Mori - AFP, Richard Ellis - AFP
Head of department Ghassan Basile, Gallagher Fenwick
Copy Editor Assiya Hamza
Design and development Creative department - France Médias Monde
Over the course of his 50 years in politics, former French president Jacques Chirac developed strong ties with Africa and its leaders. His close and at times murky relations with the continent earned him the nickname “the African”.
During his two terms as French president, Chirac made no fewer than 15 visits to Egypt and the Maghreb (six to Egypt, three each to Morocco and Tunisia, two to Algeria and one to Libya). But Chirac’s African legacy remains more strongly linked with the sub-Saharan part of the continent. He maintained strong relations with the former French colonies and fiercely defended French interests on the continent as well as African interests on the international stage. Over the course of many Franco-African summits, Chirac pushed for bilateral cooperation on business and development to the benefit of France as well as the African continent and its youth.
French interests, however, often took precedence over good intentions.
Although he claimed to want a less paternalistic relationship with the continent, Chirac was accused of reviving France’s colonial-era political and economic influence. As a result, his name remains associated with “Françafrique” – a derogatory term used to refer to France’s controversial and opaque network of political, economic and military dealings in its former African colonies, primarily in the west and centre of the continent.
Chirac was also known to support political candidates and dynasties that held little regard for transparent, democratic governance or human rights. His close ties with corrupt African politicians and dictators were subject to intense speculation. Some of his allies included Gabon’s Omar Bongo, Congo’s Denis Sassou Nguesso, Burkina Faso’s Blaise Compaoré, Cameroon’s Paul Biya and Togo’s Gnassingbé Eyadema. In 2005, Chirac deployed the French army to Chad to protect President Idriss Déby Itno from being overthrown by rebel forces demanding his ouster.
But the most controversial crisis by far was in Ivory Coast in November 2004, when then Ivorian president Laurent Gbagbo was battling a rebellion in the north of the country. The Ivorian air force launched an air strike – officially by "mistake” – against a military camp in Bouaké, killing nine French soldiers. Chirac promptly retaliated. The French army destroyed the Ivorian fleet and encircled Gbagbo’s presidential palace in Abidjan – also officially by "mistake".
Relations between Gbagbo and Chirac have been tense ever since. From the International Criminal Court at The Hague, where he is facing trial for crimes against humanity, Gbagbo regularly accuses Chirac of having tried to depose him.
Of all the French presidents over the last 50 years, Jacques Chirac was certainly the one who knew the United States best. But his knowledge of the country did not always equate with affection.
As a young man, Chirac audited summer classes at Harvard University and spent a year hitchhiking across the United States in 1952. Later, as a student of economics at Sciences Po University in Paris, he wrote his thesis on the development of the port of New Orleans, Louisiana.
However, despite his studies and experiences in the US, Chirac did not express any particular admiration for the country while he was in power. Pro-NATO but a Gaullist at heart, Chirac was ever suspicious of the North American superpower, in particular after September 11, 2001. The first head of state to visit New York after the attacks on the World Trade Center, he extended his support to former US president George W. Bush’s government by involving the French army in the international coalition in Afghanistan. But the hawkish rhetoric of his American counterpart, who spoke of a "war on terror" against "evildoers", worried Chirac, who sought to make sure the American response was not disproportionate.
Two years later, Chirac opposed the US-led invasion of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. When Chirac vetoed a UN Security Council resolution authorising the use of military force to rid Iraq of its alleged weapons of mass destruction, he aroused the wrath of Washington and stirred anti-French sentiment on the other side of the Atlantic.
Accused of anti-Americanism, the French president took advantage of an interview with "Time" magazine to express his friendship with the US. "It is a country where I feel good. I really like junk food and every time I go to the United States, I return to France with a few extra kilos."
Chirac said his refusal to take part in the war in Iraq remained one of the greatest successes of his 12 years as president. In 2007, when Chirac and former British prime minister Tony Blair were both preparing to step down from power, French newspaper "Le Monde" published a cartoon taking stock of the presidents’ records. In it Blair, one of the strongest US allies in the war on terrorism, exclaims: "I was entirely successful, except for Iraq." Chirac, in turn, responds: "I was a complete failure, except for Iraq."
Chirac discovered Asian art as a youth at the Guimet Museum in Paris and instantly fell in love with the Far East. He soon nurtured his fascination for Asian civilisations with trips to Japan, China, South Korea, India and Vietnam. In his 2009 memoirs he wrote about his desire, at age 16, to “convert to Hinduism”, adding: “At the time, there was but one ideal I cherished: the non-violence embodied by Gandhi.”
Chirac made no secret of his Asia passion once in office. “I love Asia, its peoples, its nations, its ancient civilisations,” he said in February 1996 during his first trip to the region as president. He helped launch the first Asia-Europe Meeting that year, calling for a “multipolar world” and pushing for closer ties to the region. He was driven by both passion and reason, mindful of the economic opportunities presented by China and the so-called Asian Tigers.
Chirac’s visits to China established his credentials as France’s salesman-in-chief. Each trip to Beijing featured a bandwagon of French entrepreneurs and a flurry of lucrative contracts. It helped that the French president kept a low profile on human rights and persuaded his EU partners to lift an arms embargo imposed after the 1989 Tiananmen massacre.
An avid sumo fan (he even named his dog “Sumo”), “Chiraku” enjoyed a special relationship with Japan, which he visited in a private capacity more than 40 times. In 1996 he signed a pact with Ryutaro Hashimoto, then Japan’s premier, to strengthen political and economic cooperation between the two countries. Three years later, the merger between carmakers Renault and Nissan signaled the depth of the rapprochement between Paris and Tokyo.
Longstanding rumours of a secret bank account in Tokyo put a blemish on Chirac’s ties to Japan. He denied the allegations in May 2006 but they resurfaced a year later when judges questioned a retired intelligence officer. The case did not lead to a formal investigation.
Chirac remained a popular figure in the region. He was regarded as an expert in local civilisations – including by his Asian counterparts, whom he was fond of correcting when they got their historical facts wrong. Jean-David Levitte, a French diplomat and Asia specialist, once told him: “You’re an ethnologist disguised as president.”
Jacques Chirac was no natural-born Europhile. In 1978, after a first stint as prime minister, he railed against the European Economic Community’s “anti-national” policies, describing advocates of closer European integration as the “party of foreigners”.
It would take another decade – and a stinging defeat in the 1988 election to pro-European incumbent François Mitterrand – for Chirac to finally embrace the European project. Defying the nationalist old guard in his conservative RPR party, he called for a “Yes” vote in the 1992 referendum on the Maastricht Treaty, which laid the foundations for the European Union.
Upon his ascent to the presidency in 1995, Chirac became an advocate of a powerful EU driven by the Franco-German partnership. “Europe is so fashioned that there can be no decisive progress without prior development by Germany and France together,” he later wrote, adding: “Everything is possible so long as our two countries can shape a common ambition for Europe.”
But Chirac had critics in Brussels, who accused him of stubbornly pursuing French interests. His defence of the Common Agricultural Policy led to tussles with Britain and at least one famous slur: “The only thing [the British] have ever given European farming is mad cow.”
The French president’s initial enthusiastic support for the EU’s eastward enlargement also soured when he blasted several former members of the Soviet bloc for supporting the Iraq War in 2003, suggesting they had “missed a great opportunity to shut up”.
Chirac suffered a blow in May 2005 when French voters overwhelmingly rejected a proposed EU constitution in a referendum, fuelling talk of France’s declining influence on the continent. It also cast a pall over the twilight years of Chirac’s presidency.
Chirac remained a firm believer in the importance of the Franco-German partnership. Choosing Berlin for his last official visit, he hailed the alliance as “an extraordinary success that must be consolidated at all times”, a stance maintained by subsequent presidents. His successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, made the trip to Berlin barely a week into his presidency. Five years later François Hollande followed suit, flying to Berlin just hours after he was sworn in.
Chirac’s relations with the Arab world throughout his eventful career have been documented by a trove of pictures of the former French president shaking hands with Middle Eastern leaders – including some of the least palatable.
In 2003, as Chirac defied America’s calls for war in Iraq, an old picture of the Frenchman greeting Saddam Hussein suddenly resurfaced amid attempts to discredit his anti-war stance. The photo was taken in 1975 when Chirac, France’s prime minister at the time, hosted his “personal friend”, then Iraq’s vice president. Still, nearly three decades on, the future dictator’s lavish reception in Paris came as a shock to many.
Over the years Chirac counted a host of “personal friends” in the Middle East, none closer than the late Rafik Hariri, Lebanon’s former prime minister. Their friendship helped shape Chirac’s Middle Eastern policies after he was first elected to the presidency in 1995. Formerly a patron of Bashar al-Assad, the French president did all he could to isolate the young Syrian leader after he meddled with Lebanese politics. Nor could he forgive Hariri’s assassination in a Beirut bombing in 2005, blamed by many on the Syrian secret service.
The Israeli-Palestinian conflict saw Chirac perform another U-turn. At first hostile to the notion of a Palestinian state, the French leader changed tack upon meeting Yasser Arafat, whom he met some 30 times between 1995 and 2004. The two grew to respect each other and Chirac wept openly when the Palestinian leader died in Paris in November 2004.
“Doctor Chirac”, as Arafat used to call him, was by then a hero to many Palestinians. Eight years earlier, the French leader had made a memorable outburst during a visit to Jerusalem’s Old City. Hemmed in by a heavy-handed Israeli security presence, Chirac snapped in English to an Israeli guard. “What do you want – for me to go back to my plane and go back to France? …This is a provocation!” he roared, his face flushed with anger. Footage of his rant spread like wildfire, cementing his reputation as a “friend of the Arabs”.
Beyond the bluster, critics have argued that Chirac’s Middle Eastern strategy was beset by contradictions. The French leader tried to avoid a confrontation between the West and the Muslim world while also pursuing an archaic great-power policy aimed at restoring French prestige in the region – in both cases with questionable success.
Jacques Chirac had just moved into the Élysée Palace in 1995 when he announced the resumption of nuclear tests in French Polynesia. The plan was aimed at reestablishing France’s standing among the world’s nuclear powers. But its first effect was to send ripples of anger through the South Pacific and beyond.
The concomitance of the first test with the 50th anniversary of the Hiroshima bombing only compounded the controversy. Green activists urged consumers to “drop a bomb on Chirac’s plans” by boycotting French products. By the end of the year, sales of French wine in the UK, then France’s biggest export market for wine, had slumped by a third.
On Tahiti, French Polynesia’s biggest island, peaceful protests turned ugly in September 1995 when anti-French demonstrators set parts of the capital, Papeete, on fire and gutted the airport’s main passenger terminal. A year later, France signed the Treaty of Rarotonga, which banned the use, testing or possession of nuclear weapons in the South Pacific.
While the treaty brought an end to French nuclear tests, the radioactive fallout in French Polynesia continued to haunt Chirac’s presidency. Attending a France-Oceania summit in Papeete in 2003, the French leader claimed independent experts had concluded that the 1995 tests would have “no impact on people’s health that can be medically diagnosed”.
Declassified documents released years later by France’s defence ministry revealed that nuclear tests carried out in the 1960s and ’70s were far more toxic than previously acknowledged, but the jury is still out on the long-term fallout from Chirac’s tests.
The French president sought to erase memories of his nuclear faux pas during his second term in office. He notably doubled France’s Pacific Fund, which supports economic and cultural initiatives in France’s Pacific territories and fosters cooperation with neighbouring states.
His cultural diplomacy culminated in 2006 with the opening of the Quai Branly museum in Paris, his €260 million pet project, where Oceania’s indigenous civilisations enjoy pride of place.
In 1987 Chirac, then the prime minister, first discussed the creation of a French international news channel that, along with Radio France Internationale, would bolster France’s global influence. The idea was slow to take hold but gained new impetus after the first Gulf War, which helped CNN’s rise in influence. Several research reports were commissioned but the idea remained on the drawing table.
It was not until the start of Chirac’s second term as president in 2002 that the idea gained new traction. “Is it comprehensible that, year after year, we are left deploring the persistent lack of Francophone information on the world stage?” asked Chirac in a speech to the High Council of Francophones. “Everyone realises that we are still far from having a major French news channel capable of rivaling the BBC or CNN. And the recent global crises have demonstrated the handicaps suffered by a country and a culture that lacks sufficient weight in the battle of images and airwaves.”
After sporadic progress and repeated setbacks the idea of such a channel was finally adopted, to be named FRANCE 24. On December 6, 2006, at 8:29pm, the channel broadcast its first televised news programme. France 24, the international news channel, broadcasts 24/7 (6 hours a day in Spanish) to 385 million households around the world in French, Arabic, English and Spanish. The four channels have a combined weekly viewership of 79.8 million viewers (measured in 71 of the 184 countries where the channel is broadcast). From its newsroom in Paris, France 24 gives a French perspective on global affairs through a network of 160 correspondent bureaus located in nearly every country. It is available via cable, satellite, DTT, ADSL, on mobile phones, tablets and connected TVs, as well as on YouTube in four languages. Every month, France 24’s digital platforms attract 15.5 million visits, 59.8 million video views (2018 average) and 38.9 million followers on Facebook and Twitter (April 2019).