As widely expected, French president Jacques Chirac announced Sunday that he will not seek a third term in presidential elections in six weeks. In a televised address, Chirac said he would find new ways to serve his country after leaving office: “Serving France, and serving peace, is what I have committed my whole life to.”
Though he did not say as much, the announcement was an implicit acknowledgment that low popularity, age — he is 74 — and Nicolas Sarkozy, his conservative colleague-cum-rival as hugely ambitious as Chirac once was, have finally overtaken him.
Chirac, admired and scorned during 12 years as president of France, leaves a legacy as mixed and ambiguous as the man himself.
Most on the French right Chirac once dominated and in the party founded for his re-election in 2002 have swung behind Sarkozy before the April-May two-round presidential vote, leaving Chirac with no political base for another run.
Capable of surprise
But Chirac has pulled surprises in the past and he kept France guessing as long as possible about whether he will run again — seemingly to avoid becoming a lame duck too soon.
On France, Chirac made less of a mark than General Charles de Gaulle, his role model, or his immediate predecessor, Socialist Francois Mitterrand.
Internationally, the repercussions of Chirac’s defiant “Non!” to war on Iraq, which forced President Bush to invade in 2003 without United Nations backing, still echo.
So, too, does another “Non!” of the Chirac era — that of French voters who rejected Europe’s drive toward greater integration in 2005.
Some accused the French leader of derailing European ambitions, since it was he who put the issue to a referendum. For many, it is among the biggest blemishes on the record of a statesman who occasionally seemed to be more concerned about problems abroad than at home.
Chirac’s acknowledgment of the French state’s guilt in the Nazi extermination of Jews in World War II was historic. But economically, few French say they are better off than they were in 1995, when crowds splashed in Paris fountains to celebrate Chirac’s surprise election win.
‘This new world, we must embrace it’
In his address, Chirac urged France to believe in itself. “We have so many trump cards,” he said. “We must not fear the world’s evolution. This new world, we must embrace it. We must continue to put our mark on it.”
Still, many are eager to see him go. After four decades in politics, Chirac had become uninspiring scenery — present but barely noticed.
Protected by presidential immunity, Chirac always avoided corruption investigations that brought down others in his entourage. Former aide Jean-Francois Probst described Chirac as “a charming liar.” Back in civilian life, Chirac risks being targeted by investigating judges.
For some critics, Chirac’s greatest failure was his lack of bold change and leadership for a country struggling to maintain its place in an increasingly competitive, globalized world. Instead, Chirac sometimes seemed determined to upset as few people as possible, charting a middle course of timid reform and backing down in the face of street protests.
His first term was hamstrung by his disastrous decision to call parliamentary elections in 1997. The Socialists won, forcing Chirac into uncomfortable power-sharing. His second term was tarnished from the start: Many, including his opponents on the left, voted for Chirac simply to keep out the other run-off candidate — far-right nationalist leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.
New generation waits in the wings
Without Chirac, France will almost certainly get its first leader born after World War II — most likely Sarkozy, 52, Socialist Segolene Royal, 53, or even long-shot centrist Francois Bayrou, 55.
It’s a reflection on Chirac’s reign that Sarkozy — even though he comes from the same political camp — has largely built his campaign around promises that he will break with policies of the Chirac years, as if offering continuity would only guarantee electoral defeat.
Chirac sometimes let ill-temper and haughtiness trip up his diplomacy.
He savaged Eastern European nations that backed Bush on Iraq, saying, “They missed a good opportunity to keep quiet.”
“Profoundly shocked,” he walked out of an EU summit in 2006 when a fellow Frenchman spoke English. Unapologetic, he later said: “You cannot base a future world on just one language, just one culture.”
Chirac’s opposition to the U.S.-led war on Iraq — he said U.N. weapons inspectors should get more time to disarm Saddam Hussein peacefully — led to a brief surge in his popularity and added bite to his arguments that multilateral, multipolar decision-making — not American might — should govern international action.
“War is always a last resort. It is always proof of failure. It is always the worst of solutions, because it brings death and misery,” Chirac said a week before U.S.-led coalition forces invaded Iraq.