Jacques Chirac, 1932 – 2019: The anti-Trump

by Paul Ben-Itzak
Copyright 2019 Paul Ben-Itzak

Where Donald Trump flouts international law, Jacques Chirac — the French president from 1995 to 2007, who died Thursday morning in Paris at the age of 86 from a vascular cerebral attack in his ground-floor apartment on the rue Tournelle across the street from the Seine and its bookstands — not only respected it, but made the correlation to internal security and stability. If France remained so long immune to terrorist attacks from groups of Arab or Islamic, local or international origin, it was in no small part because France refused, under Chirac’s leadership, to kowtow to the United States, steadfastedly opposing George Bush’s illegal 2003 invasion of Iraq. “We respect international law not only because of the principle of not interfering with other countries’ internal affairs, but because it will backfire for us internally,” he would later point out. (Chirac also predicted the chaos that would follow an illegal invasion, a chaos for which France has paid the price in blood.)

If Donald Trump has not only tolerated but encouraged Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s racism — suggesting that he prevent two American congresswomen of color from entering Israel — it was Jacques Chirac who, walking towards the Church of the Sepulcher on a State visit to East Jerusalem one brilliant morning in 1996, read the riot act to the Israeli soldiers who were pressing him so tightly he was unable to shake hands with the Palestinian merchants emerging from their shops on the narrow via de la Rosa to meet him.

“What do you want me to do,” the French president excoriated his armed Israeli escort, in perfect English. “go back to my plane and go back to France? Then let them go, let them do, this is not a method, this is a provocation. Please stop now.” Later in a nearby village in Occupied Palestine, he refused to enter a church because there were Israeli soldiers inside (conducting a security check). They went out, Chirac went in… And a certain prime minister presented his excuses: Benjamin Netanyahu. Since that visit, as any Frenchman voyaging to an Arab land will tell you, the first thing the locals tell them on learning where they come from is, “France? Jacques Chirac!” The West Bank Village of Ramallah even named as street after him.

Where Trump’s discourses have served as fodder for White supremacists, Chirac, on his own initiative, without any prompting, and as one of his first acts as president in 1995 declared that France must assume its responsibility in the deportation and deaths of 71,000 French and foreign Jews, men, women, and children.

Where Trump has the effrontery to tell the United Nations that globalism is bad and nationalism is not only good but the future — setting up a false confrontation — Chirac went the other way, spurring the creation of a museum, now called the Musée Jacques Chirac Quai Branly, to celebrate other, non-European world cultures. (As mayor of Paris for 18 years, he was also instrumental in eventually championing the construction of what would become known as the Centre Pompidou National Museum of Modern Art right in downtown Paris.) And not just for crass political gain. One of the most fascinating anecdotes in this afternoon’s radio tributes in France, shared by Catherine Clement (a Holocaust survivor), was of accompanying Chirac on a state visit to an obscure North American Indian community / state in Canada, which meant being incommunicado with his security team (and off the nuclear code grid) and entering a parliament whose seal-skin covered interior was not much bigger than an igloo, where protocol dictated removing his shoes and being served by a virgin who’d not yet menstruated. Chirac didn’t flinch. (This being French radio, the program also shared a long segment in which Chirac, conducting listeners on a visit to an exhibition at the Branly museum, explained, as journalists stunned at his connaissance looked on in wide-eyed wonder, that one of the artifacts was a ‘vomitoir’ and the nearby pieces ‘spatulas’ to furnish its content.)

This is because he was cultured. Because where Trump makes George Bush Jr. look like Adlai Stevenson, Chirac was the consummate cultured  Statesman, if anything almost embarrassed to vaunt his erudition. Or, as one wag once put it, “Where most men read Playboy behind a book of poetry, Chirac would read a book of poetry behind a copy of Playboy.”

In a word, where Trump is petit, Chirac was ‘un grand.’

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