PARIS -- Last Tuesday night, on the eve of handing over power to his successor Nicolas Sarkozy, Jacques Chirac bid an emotional "farewell" to the French people in a televised address. "I want to tell you how strong the bond is that from the bottom of my heart ties me to each and every one of you," Chirac said, "This bond is that of affection, that of respect, that of admiration for the French people." It is clear that by the end of his second term in office these warm feelings were not much reciprocated by Chirac's compatriots. Over the course of his second term, Chirac's approval ratings became mired at levels so low that he might well have been jealous of the notoriously low ratings of George W. Bush in his own second term.
In July of last year, the number of respondents expressing confidence in Chirac in the monthly "barometer" published by the French polling firm TNS-Sofres reached an all-time low of 16 percent. No other French President had ever fallen below 30 percent in the TNS-Sofres barometer since it was first launched in 1978. Chirac's rating remained under 30 percent for virtually the entirety of his last two years in office. It only managed to creep back to the 30 percent mark, and no higher, in April of this year, as Chirac faded into irrelevance.
The corresponding survey of rival French polling firm Ipsos was somewhat "kinder" to Chirac -- a fact that is perhaps not so surprising when one considers that Ipsos co-President Jean-Marc Lech has served as Chirac's personal pollster and that the firm's international expansion was largely financed by Chirac's close friend, the businessman François Pinault. But not even the Ipsos survey could hide the severe degradation in Chirac's popularity, with the Ipsos numbers bottoming out at 27 percent in June 2005. Somewhat miraculously, however, Ipsos had Chirac precipitously rallying to a majority favorable rating in his last weeks in office. This apparent "happy end" stands in glaring contradiction to other French polling data. Thus in a survey conducted by the Opinionway institute on the very day of the French presidential vote earlier this month, fully 77 percent of respondents expressed the hope that the next French President would bring about a "rupture" from Chirac's policies. A mere nine percent wished for continuity. (American readers will know Ipsos as the polling partner of the Associated Press. On the checkered history of Ipsos polling and the firm's ties to Chirac, see here.)
The resounding "no" vote in the May 2005 French referendum on the EU "constitutional treaty" represented a particularly obvious disavowal of the president by the French public. Chirac had aggressively campaigned in favor of the treaty, prophesying disaster in the event of its rejection. By appointing the zealously "Europeist" Dominique de Villepin as prime minister in response to this failure, Chirac only managed to underscore the depth of the abyss separating him from the preoccupations of ordinary French people. Perhaps the only benefit the appointment would bring Chirac was that on the whole his prime minister would prove even more unpopular than him.
Nonetheless, as the signs of disdain for Chirac among the French public -- and even certain parts of the French media -- multiplied in the months ahead, the mainstream of the American media continued to treat him with the deference befitting a great and influential statesman. Perhaps the clearest expression of this was the exaggerated importance attached by the American press to a January 2006 speech by Chirac on French nuclear deterrence. Capturing the general mood of the French public, veteran French journalist Luc Rosenzweig described Chirac's rather eccentric reflections on the subject -- including an apparent threat of a nuclear response to a terrorist attack -- as "a frantic effort to make us believe that he still exists." By contrast, the International Herald Tribune announced that "France" had adopted a new "nuclear doctrine." The Tribune editors thus seemingly forgot that France is, after all, a democracy and that, barring a highly unlikely bid for a third term in office, Chirac was scheduled to return to private life in slightly over a year, taking his ideas on nuclear deterrence with him. (On the subject, see my "Chirac's Nuclear Option.")
There is little doubt about the source of the media's obvious faith in Chirac's statesmanlike "grandeur": namely, his high-profile role in opposing the Iraq War in early 2003. In France, Chirac's anti-war stance predictably led to a spike in his popularity, as the "anti-imperialist" left suddenly found itself expressing pride in the courageous and upstanding leadership of a man who only the year before was being persistently referred to in "leftist" media as "Super-liar" [Supermenteur]: a leaden allusion to "Superman" that is as unfunny in French as it is in English. As a glance at the TNS-Sofres data makes immediately obvious, however, Chirac's stance had no lasting impact on the French public's opinion of him. Just three months after the start of the war, Chirac's "confidence" rating was right back where it had been before the war. By September 2003, it would begin the steep and steady decline that would quickly take it to hitherto unexplored depths.
"Confidence Rating" for Jacques Chirac
Blue = Confident, Red = Not Confident
(Source: TNS-Sofres; for all French presidents from 1978 onward, see here.)
For the American media and the American public, however, the highly publicized French agitation in the run-up to the war left behind the enduring impression that it was Chirac who was the driving force behind the Franco-German "Axis of Peace" that attempted to prevent the American-led intervention. The notion that Chirac led the opposition to the war is common on both the "left" and the "right" and it is shared by both Chirac's admirers and his detractors. But a simple look back at the chronology of events makes clear that this notion is a myth. Chirac did not lead. He followed.
As is well known, then German Chancellor Gerhard Schröder made a categorical rejection of a military intervention in Iraq the centerpiece of his campaign for reelection already in summer 2002 -- even before the Bush administration had taken any clear decision to pursue such a course. In early September 2002, barely two weeks before the German elections, Schröder used the occasion of an interview with the New York Times to specify that he would oppose an intervention even it was mandated by the U.N. Security Council. "Hands off [Iraq]," Schröder warned.
As is far less well known, as late as Jan. 7, 2003, Chirac was publicly invoking the possibility of French participation in such an intervention. "Numerous challenges await us in the coming year," Chirac noted in his annual address to the French military [link in French]:
One week later, on Jan. 14, Chirac and Schröder would dine together at the Elysée Palace. Among other things, they are supposed to have discussed a project for the revitalization of the Franco-German partnership that was set to be announced on the symbolic occasion of the 40th anniversary of the signing of the Elysée Treaty: the Franco-German "Friendship" treaty signed by Konrad Adenauer and Charles de Gaulle on Jan. 22, 1963. The French daily Le Figaro noted that the Iraq crisis would provide a first "test" for this renewed spirit of cooperation. "For the President of the Republic, the difficulty will consist in trying to avoid finding himself one day in the position of having to choose between the alliance with the United States and solidarity with Germany" (Le Figaro, Jan. 15, 2003).
This is evidently precisely the choice with which Schröder confronted Chirac. Almost immediately after his visit from Schröder, Chirac's tone on the Iraq question considerably hardened: namely, toward the United States. Speaking at the Elysée on Jan. 17 in the presence of chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, Chirac stressed the need for a new Security Council resolution mandating any intervention -- even though France had itself participated in the Kosovo War only four years before without any U.N. mandate. "If any country undertakes measures that are not consistent with what I just said," Chirac warned, "it will purely and simply be putting itself outside the framework of international law." Then, on Jan. 22, on the anniversary of the signing of the Elysée Treaty, Schröder and Chirac announced the formation of their common front on the Iraq issue, promising to coordinate their action in the Security Council. Their judgment on the matter was, they stressed in a joint press conference, "the same."
Two weeks later, the German weekly Der Spiegel would publish a sensational cover story revealing a supposed Franco-German "alternative plan" for the disarmament of Iraq that would transform the country into a full-fledged U.N. protectorate. "Instead of War: UN Control of Iraq?" ran the headline, "The Alternative Plan of the French and the Germans." German Defense Minister Peter Struck confirmed the existence of the "plan." "The French," however, had apparently never heard of it. Referring to a French proposal to "double or triple" the number of weapons inspectors that had already been presented before the Security Council, Struck's French counterpart Michelle Alliot-Marie commented: "These proposals -- this French plan, if you like -- has been greeted with interest or even received the support of a certain number of countries: among them probably the Germans" (Reuters [French], Feb. 10, 2003).
Jacques Chirac and France held the key to preventing the United States from obtaining the U.N. imprimatur for military action against Iraq: namely, the veto power that comes with a permanent seat on the U.N. Security Council. On March 10, Jacques Chirac went on French television and dutifully declared that France would apply its veto to any resolution mandating intervention: "no matter what the circumstances." But the driving force behind the Franco-German campaign to obstruct and discredit the Bush administration's Iraq policy was not Jacques Chirac. It was Gerhard Schröder.
With the election of Nicolas Sarkozy and the appointment of a foreign minister (Bernard Kouchner) who supported the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, it would seem that France has turned the page. And Germany? It is widely rumored in German policy circles that the eminence grise who guided Gerhard Schröder's 2002 offensive against the American administration was the chancellor's chief of staff: one Frank-Walter Steinmeier -- the current German Foreign Minister.
John Rosenthal writes on European politics and transatlantic relations. His work has appeared in English, French and German in publications such as Policy Review, The Claremont Review of Books, The New York Sun, Les Temps Modernes, Le Figaro and Merkur. He is a WPR contributing editor.
Photo: Jacques Chirac at the 2006 G8 Summit in St. Petersburg, Russia.
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