European Affairs

First of all, Chirac's memoirs offer some insights into a generation that has now passed from the political scene -- old enough to remember Word War II and the occupation but too young to bear arms; one that served in France's last bitter colonial spasm in Algeria and one that came of age as the United States was beginning to spread its cultural as well as its economic and political influence deeply into Europe. As much as Chirac built a reputation and political career disdaining the Paris elites, his youth embodied the path typical of the governing class -- a nominally Catholic but assertively secular upbringing in both Paris and the countryside (Correze), Sciences-Po and the Ecole National d' Administration (ENA), marriage into one of the country's most prominent diplomatic families and a devotion to the mystique and principles of Charles de Gaulle.

Chirac writes on assuming the presidency, a peculiarly hybrid office created by de Gaulle's Fifth Republic, partly political and democratic but almost monarchical:

"The general personified the state, in its strongest, most elevated, and most demanding characteristics. 'Without the state, there is no France,' he reminded us shortly after his return to power (in 1958)--he who knew all that the destruction of its institutions had cost France in terms of defeat, suffering and humiliation. The state had a veritable mystique for de Gaulle, and he served it in that spirit. If his example remained awe-inspiring and naturally inimitable , I had always believed it vital to take inspiration from it."

In those few lines are the expression of an unbridgeable philosophical gap between Americans and their European forebears. It is impossible to imagine any American politician or citizen suggesting without the state there would be no United States of America, even if we began a horrible Civil War with the aim of preserving the Union. Perhaps our equivalent reverential reference point would be the U.S. Constitution. Since 1787, we have had one, only occasionally amended. France in that time has gone through several monarchies and republics.

In another paragraph, Chirac sets out the principles for France to act on the international stage, one that defines the dilemma of a once global power still seeking to be a major force in a world dominated by superpowers. It probably should be pasted on the first page of the briefing book for any American politician or diplomat dealing with their French counterparts:

Based on the thinking of de Gaulle, he says :" I have always believed that France occupies a particular role in the world because of its history, language, culture and values. France is a country that counts in the eyes of other nations and whose voice is wanted and listened to. Repository of a humanist vision and ideals, it is called to transmit that heritage and to express an ambition that goes beyond its own interests alone."

How those ideals translated into quotidian diplomacy and statecraft form the bulk of this book -- the volcanic dispute over the second Iraq war (where French skepticism has been vindicated even for most Americans); the maneuvering between Arabs and Israelis, between Syrians and Lebanese, relations with former African colonies and the all-night negotiations that constituted the construction of Europe. While not dramatically revealing, the recounting of these action-packed years offer some examples of deft diplomacy mixed with some remarkable naivete. For example, did Deng Tsiao Peng really think of France as a major pillar of Chinese diplomacy or was he demonstrating a capacity for flattery? And were the French intelligence services unaware of the brutality of the Saddam Hussein regime or did political leaders prefer to turn a blind eye as they worked their nuclear deals?

Of course, what draws many readers to memoirs is a voyeuristic hope that the politician will really dish on his contemporaries.Chirac certainly describes a political environment full of treachery, intrigue and deception, but perhaps that is universal in any capital worth its salt. But for the most part, he is measured and fair minded. He expresses genuine admiration for the intellect and cunning of Socialist predecessor Francois Mitterrand, with whom he served in a "cohabitation" government as premier and then succeeded as president. Actually, Chirac twice served in a cohabitation, the second time in his presidency when the Socialists took control of parliament. For Americans frustrated by a government with different political parties controlling the executive and legislature, try to imagine an executive split between parties, with a prime minister and cabinet of one party and a president from another, the cabinet ostensibly under control of the premier except for the ministries of foreign affairs and defense which are the responsibility of the president.

Where Chirac cannot contain himself is with fellow politicians from the right, most notably former president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, whom he served briefly as prime minster in the 1970s. He never misses an opportunity to poke a knife into Giscard's aristocratic pretensions and monarchical instincts, even noting that at formal dinners the guests were seated in regular chairs while the president and his wife reposed on arm chairs.Not surprisingly, he has scant regard for his successor Nicolas Sarkozy, They were they opposites ideologically --the Atlanticist and economic liberal versus the Gaullist who spoke of solidarity. And then there was the personal: "I found Sarkozy...nervous, impatient, spilling over with ambition, sure of everything --above all himself."

But there is one unfortunate and gratuitous lapse in measured commentary that must be called to account, especially for an American audience. Describing an international summit as the 1994 Rwanda massacre was unfolding, Chirac writes, "...Bill Clinton did not seem any more worried about Africa than his predecessors, who barely knew where this continent was located on a map of the world. In short, it was France's role, here as elsewhere, to remind its American friends of certain realities."

The sad reality is that French fingerprints are all over that genocide, as documented by witnesses in a 500-page Rwandan government report and elsewhere and for which Sarkozy acknowledged some responsibility, if not following the Americans and Belgians in a formal apology. Rwanda, is an ignominious template for a flash of French condescension to Americans in matters African. And it mars an otherwise informative and readable memoir from a French president, whose post-presidential life has brought a conviction and suspended sentence for corruption during his tenure as Mayor of Paris and who is now slipping into what his spiritual patron de Gaulle described in an oft-quoted aphorism:"la vieillesse est un naufrage (old age is a shipwreck.)"


"My Life" By Jacques Chirac. With Jean-Luc Barre. Translated by Catherine Spencer. Palgrave Macmillan. 344 pages.