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Mitterrand’s successor, Jacques Chirac, was a neo-Gaullist, who administered the next anti-constitutional blow — though in his case it was through sheer incompetence rather than self-interested calculation. Having survived the distressing experience of serving as Mitterrand’s prime minister, Chirac — on being elected president in 1995 — was unable to face the prospect of another cohabitation. So he delayed the dissolution of the National Assembly and then, in 1997, mismanaged the eventual election so badly that he lost it — and let himself in for five years of power-sharing with a Socialist government rather than two.

When his first term came to an end in 2002, President Chirac who had effectively been politically impotent for five years, decided to run again, but — still unable to face the prospect of a further “cohabitation” — abolished the possibility by reducing the length of the presidential term to match the parliamentary term, thereby wrecking de Gaulle’s delicate balance between president and parliament. In consequence, for the last 15 years, the presidents of the Fifth Republic — successively Chirac, Sarkozy and Hollande — have been all-powerful; their prime ministers — and theoretical heads of government — have been reduced to the status of presidential whipping-boys, and the National Assembly has been unable to function as a corrective to an overbearing or incompetent president.

Despite the fact that he held all the cards, Chirac’s second term was not the most glorious period in his country’s political history. Before becoming prime minister he had been elected mayor of Paris and for many years he had used this power-base to build a personal political machine. He fiddled the books and used city funds to finance his political campaigns. In 2004 his first prime minister, Alain Juppé, who had previously been the city hall treasurer, was sentenced to a suspended prison term for operating this system, and Chirac himself was under criminal investigation when he ran for re-election. His status as president gave him temporary immunity from prosecution but the pending investigation meant that he was desperate to control his own succession and he spent much of his second term plotting against his hyperactive interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, whom he suspected, correctly, of presidential ambitions.

In an attempt to block Sarkozy’s progress Chirac’s team at the Elysée Palace tapped the interior minister’s telephone, forged documents and framed him in a fictional bribery case. Sarkozy was furious, not least because, as minister of the interior, he had assumed that he had a monopoly of telephone tapping.

In 2007 Chirac’s efforts failed; he left office and was succeeded in the presidency by Sarkozy, who took a comprehensive revenge on his former leader. He ensured that Dominique de Villepin, who had been Chirac’s last prime minister, was charged with receiving stolen goods and forgery. And he authorised the prosecution of Chirac for embezzlement of public funds. Ex-President Chirac was in due course handed a two-year prison sentence (which he never served, pleading that he had lost his memory and was therefore unable to exercise his right of appeal).

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