Jacques Chirac (born 1932) was an influential French technocrat under Presidents Charles deGaulle and Georges Pompidou. He served as prime minister under President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing (1974-1976), was an unsuccessful presidential candidate in 1981, became prime minister again in 1986 under President François Mitterrand, and was elected President of France in 1995.
Jacques Chirac was born in Paris on November 29, 1932. Young Jacques had a meteoric career. Like many upper middle class Parisians he first headed for the bureaucracy. He graduated from the prestigious Institute for Political Studies and the National School for Administration, one of the training grounds for the French elite.
In 1959 Chirac began his bureaucratic career in accounting at the Cour des Comptes. Like many bureaucrats of his day, he found his own commitment to growth and modernization coincided with the policies of the new Gaullist government. He was tapped to join a politician's personal staff, in this case Prime Minister Pompidou's, in 1962. For the remainder of Pompidou's tenure, Chirac was a valuable economic adviser who played a critical role in the dramatic economic growth France was experiencing. Chirac entered the electoral arena in 1965, when he was elected to the municipal council of the tiny Corrèzian town of Sainte-Féréol, his family's home town. In 1967 he was elected to the National Assembly from that area and was repeatedly re-elected after that.
Chirac was also appointed to a series of cabinet posts, beginning as secretary of state for social affairs in charge of employment in 1967. After that he served as secretary of state for the economy and finance (1968-1971), minister delegate to the premier for relations with Parliament (1971-1972), minister of agriculture and rural development (1972-1974), and minister of the interior (February-May 1974).
Appointed Prime Minister
Chirac's political influence within the Gaullist party grew during those years. His personal political career really took off with the 1974 presidential election. President Georges Pompidou died while in office that April. Chirac supported the successful Valéry Giscard d'Estaing in the ensuing elections rather than the Gaullist Jacques Chaban-Delmas.
The new president named Chirac prime minister. And, despite some grumbling from the old Gaullist "barons," he took control of the Gaullist party, which had been left in a shambles following Chaban's disastrous showing in the elections.
His years as prime minister were difficult. He and President Giscard had different styles and images of the proper role for the state. Chirac, in particular, had difficulty with the president's frequently expressed desire to limit the role of the state in guiding the economy. In addition, Prime Minister Chirac's strong ambitions often conflicted with the president's. Finally, in 1976, the president requested and received Prime Minister Chirac's resignation.
Member of the Opposition
That December Chirac restructured the Gaullist party, calling it the Rally for the Republic (RPR), and became the "new" party's first leader as a first step in his own presidential campaign. In 1977 he was elected the first mayor of Paris since the commune of 1870-1871. He used that office, which he held until 1995, as a vehicle to criticize the national government and to demonstrate his own ability to head a team that had remarkable success in redeveloping much of the city and improving its social services. He also headed the RPR slate in the 1978 legislative elections and continued his critical support of the Giscard-Barre government from then until the end of Giscard's seven year term in 1981.
That year, Jacques Chirac chose to run in the presidential elections and did rather well, winning 18 percent of the first ballot vote. At the second ballot, he only gave Giscard lukewarm support, which undoubtedly helped contribute to the president's defeat by President François Mitterrand. Chirac remained one of the leading opposition politicians. When the Socialist Party of President Mitterrand lost its majority in the National Assembly in the 1986 election, Chirac became prime minister again in a power-sharing agreement called cohabitation. It was the first time in the 28 years of the Fifth Republic that the French government was divided between a conservative parliament, led by Chirac, and a socialist president, Mitterrand. In 1988 Chirac ran for president a second time and was again defeated by Mitterrand. Mitterrand's election ended cohabitation and Chirac's term as prime minister. In 1995, Mitterrand, in declining health, decided not to seek another term in office. In the May election to replace him, Chirac won nearly 53 percent of the vote to capture the presidency on his third attempt.
President of France
As the President of France, Chirac faced the daunting challenge of restoring public confidence and generating higher levels of economic growth to decrease the country's alarming unemployment rate. In addition to creating more jobs, Chirac also promised to lower taxes, overhaul the education system, and create a volunteer army. The President also signalled his intention of continuing Mitterrand's move toward European integration and a single European currency.
Chirac's popularity dropped, however, when, later in 1995, France restarted its nuclear weapons test program in the South Pacific. Over 20 countries officially protested, demonstrators across the globe took to the streets, and international boycotts of wine and other French products were erected. Riots erupted in Tahiti, near the test site, injuring 40 people and causing millions of dollars in property damage. Chirac defended his decision by claiming that Mitterrand had prematurely ceased testing during his term in office. Chirac promised, however, to sign the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty provided the current round of testing offered sufficient data to make future computer simulations feasible.
Chirac's closest political advisor was his daughter Claude who handled the President's communications, organized his trips, and played an important role in his election.
Despite the serious burdens that Chirac shouldered as French President, he embraced the lighter side of life and had a penchant for Americana that probably began in 1953 when he traveled to the United States and attended summer courses at Harvard. To help support himself, the 20-year-old Chirac worked as a soda jerk and dishwasher in a Howard Johnson's restaurant. The New York Times, speaking of Chirac's common touch, reported, "He prefers a cold Mexican beer to a glass of wine, and a genuine American meal like a hot turkey sandwich with gravy to a pseudo-Escoffier meal. While he strongly supports the law that requires French television stations to show mainly French films, … friends say he would rather watch a Gary Cooper western than a mannered French romance." Chirac's habit of frequenting McDonald's and Burger King restaurants led Prime Minister Alain Juppé to joke in Time, "As soon as he sees a fast-food place, he has to stop the car, rush up to the counter, and order a hamburger."
Further Reading on Jacques Chirac
For an article on Chirac's presidency, see Paris bureau chief, Craig R. Whitney's article in the New York Times, February 11, 1996.
None of Jacques Chirac's books have been translated into English. The best material on him and his political circumstances can be found in Jean Charlot, The Gaullist Phenomenon (London, 1971) and in Frank L. Wilson, French Political Parties Under the Fifth Republic (1982).