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Chirac, the Movie

As Jacques Chirac’s political career draws to a close, have his personal traits served him well in leading France?

May 4, 2007

As Jacques Chirac's political career draws to a close, have his personal traits served him well in leading France?

With Jacques Chirac’s two terms as President of France coming to an end on May 17, 2007, inevitably a question arises: If a movie were to be made about Mr. Chirac, who would be best suited to play the role?

Certainly, many fine French and international actors could do an excellent job of portraying Mr. Chirac. But for somebody to capture the true essence of his demeanor and performance in office, it might be best to look outside the ranks of established actors.

Amazingly, the person best suited to play Mr. Chirac may well be Muammar Gaddafi, Libya's 65-year-old leader. He, too, is a man whose main interest in his job seems to be focused on the pomp and circumstance that comes along with it — and yes, even the dress code.

Like Chirac, Muammar Gaddafi is known for his personal vanity and fondness for dramatic appearances — and exits — that have put his nation at a great disadvantage.

What further unites both men is the endurance necessary to serve as a 24-hour showman for decades. Their main ambition, apparently, was and is to serve as a constant source for mellifluous piles of words in always carefully stage-managed events.

Given those priorities, why would one bother to consider such trivial matters as the nation's economy and its social woes?

As a quasi-regal personality, handling such matters is clearly the job of underlings, whom both Chirac and Gaddafi can basically exchange and fire at their discretion.

At times, they both simply revel in mimicking Louis XIV — “L´ètat, C´Est Moi.” And whenever the going gets a little tough on the home front, one can always resort to a favorite ploy — giving a speech that attracts the world's attention (or doing something else, of an even more foolish nature).

While Gaddafi resorted to wholly unacceptable measures in supporting terrorism, both men are greatly concerned with their own relevance in the "big game" — and on the global stage.

The most recent example was Jacques Chirac's saber-rattling outburst on the nuclear issue in February 2007, when he implicitly threatened Tehran with a nuclear strike if the regime continued misbehaving.

Mr. Chirac's statement in this case was clearly driven by his desire to generate global headlines. But this is nothing new. He is always concerned with proof of his own continued relevance — even as the domestic debate in France has quickly passed him by.

Finding a proper exit is never an easy matter after a long career in politics. This is especially true considering that Jacques Chirac first served in a ministerial office as far back as 1967. As a matter of fact, Mr. Chirac’s 39 years in office actually equals the median age of France’s entire population.

And yet, Jacques Chirac — despite all his focus on producing himself as a life-long movie — has largely failed to produce a substantive reason to be remembered.

Instead, people see a man all too willing to flip-flop on his own positions in order to be considered a player — even if that very act showed the man to have no inner core or compass, beyond his own vanity.

The one bright spot in Chirac’s repertoire was his consistent opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq. He warned against premature and loose-lipped announcements on the international stage — and he warned the Americans of another Algeria. And he was proven right.

In the end, Chirac is a tragic figure. Given the powerful office he aspired to for all his adult life — and that he held for 12 years — he has very little to show for it, other than plenty of pomp and circumstance.

Worse, he is out-performed by Mr. Gaddafi, who has clearly done a far more effective job recently of overcoming his longstanding hang-ups and self-defeating policies.

Gaddafi was enough of a realist to move himself out of the terrorist-supporter camp — so that the oil wells could flow more plentifully, thereby securing his country's future.

In light of Chirac’s profound disinterest in shaping an economic and social reform process in France, what seems to truly distinguish him from Gaddafi is his inability to abandon the politics of self-aggrandizement.

At some point, Lybia’s leader woke up to an epiphany — abandon pomp and circumstance for real substance. Holding to his previous course would have meant real failure for his country’s youth.

Gaddafi realized the damage of nonchalance regarding economic matters. As a result, he allowed the country’s economy to be opened and restructured.

Tragically, Monsieur Chirac was not pragmatic enough to do something of a similarly significant nature to secure his country's economic well-being. Instead, he kept on doing what he and Gaddafi had always loved doing — performing with fiery speeches and playing up the headlines.

Yet, in the end, self-appointed giants who stand on frail domestic feet ultimately end up being viewed for what they are — sad clowns only masquerading as inspiring and effective leaders.

Editor’s note: This article was originally printed in Les Echos on April 4, 2007.