Jacques Chirac, 1932–2019
The French president who defied a rush to war
Jacques Chirac was the first foreign leader to visit the U.S. following 9/11. The French president toured Ground Zero just days after the terrorist attacks, and vowing to stand side-by-side with America against the “scourge” of terrorism sent French forces to join the U.S.-led military operation in Afghanistan. But when President George W. Bush sought to expand the War on Terror to Iraq, Chirac balked, arguing that the downfall of dictator Saddam Hussein would lead to chaos and more terrorism. Chirac led international opposition to the war at the United Nations in 2003, causing some enraged Americans to pour bottles of Bordeaux into the gutter and rechristen their French fries “freedom fries.” But the French cheered him for standing up to “les Anglo Saxons,” and his popularity surged. It was the pinnacle of a four-decade career in politics. “War,” Chirac said, “is always the worst of solutions.”
Born in Paris to a wealthy family, Chirac “was spoiled by his mother, whose first child had died in infancy eight years before Jacques’ birth,” said The New York Times. She fed him candy when he came home from school, and asked visitors to wear white shirts, “believing they were less likely to carry germs into the house and imperil her son.” Hungry for adventure, Chirac went to sea on a cargo ship at age 18 and lost his virginity in an Algiers brothel, said The Times (U.K.). “When the next morning came,” Chirac wrote in his memoir, “I was no longer the same man.” After a youthful flirtation with communism, he served in the French army—seeing combat in the Algerian war for independence in the mid-1950s—and found his political home on the center right.
First elected to the parliament in 1967, the gregarious Chirac relentlessly “worked his way up the political ladder and was named prime minister in 1974 at age 41,” said the Associated Press. He became mayor of Paris in 1977, a position he held for 18 years, and was elected president in 1995. Although “a consummate global diplomat,” he failed to reform the economy or to defuse tensions between police and minority youth that exploded in nationwide riots in 2005. Chirac left office in 2007, dogged by health problems and allegations of corruption from his time as Paris’ mayor. A politician’s main goal, he once said, is to “make himself understood. But if he can make himself loved, so much the better.” ■