Chirac is no De Gaulle-but that isn’t stopping him from trying
Chirac is no De Gaulle-but that isn’t stopping him from trying
“My bulldozer,” the late French president Georges Pompidou used to call him fondly. Others have not been so kind. But in the weeks since he rallied 70,000 cheering, chanting Frenchmen under the freshly designed banner of his new Rassemblement pour la République in a vast concrete exhibition hall at Paris’ Porte de Versailles—the largest political convention in the country’s history—there has been little doubt that former premier Jacques Chirac has emerged as the new strong man on the French political horizon, with every intention of living up to his nickname.
Already, after barely 10 years in politics, Pompidou’s 44-year-old hand-picked protégé has rolled through the entrenched ranks of the ruling Gaullist party, shoving aside its venerable white-haired barons to emerge as its young pinstriped savior. In a single deft manoeuvre, Chirac has scooped up the fading remnants of the party Charles de Gaulle left behind, last officially known as the Union of Democrats for the Republic, dusted it off, updated its image with a futuristic logo and spanking new highrise headquarters, rechristened it and set it down once more on political terra firma with the familiar old Gaullist clarion call of French national unity against the common enemy. The foe this time: “the peril, the very real menace,” as Chirac puts it, of the growing French socialist-Communist alliance under socialist leader François Mitterand.
It is a move seen by some as signaling the beginnings of a new thrust in Europe—a grass-roots backlash against the mounting tide of Euro-Communism that threatens to engulf the continent. Certainly in France, where the latest opinion polls show the left alliance with 54% of popular supportenough to topple the Gaullist-dominated majority in the next general elections two years from now—Chirac seems to have unearthed both a sensitive nerve and a political gold mine. Tens of thousands of butchers, bakers and farmers from every comer of France stayed up most of one night to pilgrimage to the rally by 10 special trains, 300 buse s and a squad of charter flights, cramming the exhibition hall to hear Chirac’s every utterance in defense of liberty, private property, France’s glorious destiny and, not least of all, law and order.
In fact, at one point even the Gaullists themselves seemed taken aback at the furies they had unleashed. Just minutes before Chirac’s rally got underway, government gendarmes had invaded the premises of the embattled daily Le Parisien Libéré and evicted printers engaged in an 18-
month sit-in—a move both the leftists and Gaullists saw as a dirty trick conceived in high places to set off a two-day general newspaper strike and deprive Chirac’s new movement of press coverage, as later proved to be the case. Nevertheless when Gaullist general secretary Yves Guéna stepped to the microphone that morning to inform the throng of the dastardly deed, he seemed more than bewildered to find himself interrupted in mid-bulletin by lusty applause—approval from an order-loving crowd. It was an embarrassment to Chirac, who has repeatedly been branded a fascist, and who had spent weeks before the carefully orchestrated rally bending over backward with interviewers to dispel any authoritarian image. Still, listening to the howls of rage and frustration welling up to embrace Chirac’s call to arms, one seasoned political observer remarked on the potential being spawned for a broad-based movement with fascistic tendencies and shuddered at the memories evoked at the sight of the party’s symbol emblazoned in black on flags and armbands—De Gaulle’s legendary double-hatched cross of Lorraine.
Indeed, if one presence loomed over the
hall more than Chirac’s, it was the ghost of Le Grand Charles himself—a presence that was not merely felt in spirit. As Chirac addressed the morning assembly, his arms raised in the familiar Gaullist V of victory, he stood beneath a gigantic brooding portrait of the general gazing out from behind the dais. Even the name of the transformed party, Rassemblement pour la République, was cannily chosen to evoke memories of De Gaulle’s celebrated postwar populist movement, Rassemblement du Peuple Français.
Early in the meeting, former prime minister Michel Debre invoked the general’s shade, and his famous cry of Vive Le Québec Libre, by thundering out a warning that France must not become “the Quebec of Europe, its cultural singularity threatened.” Tumultuous applause followed. And only days before, Chirac had led a procession of party notables to De Gaulle’s grave site at Colombey-les-deux-Eglises for a memorial mass where they chorused his favorite Magnificat and, more importantly, staged a pious demonstration to show that this new Gaullist metamorphosis had the general’s symbolic blessing. For no one since Charles de Gaulle has
been able to mobilize the French people, and the worst criticism Chirac’s enemies seem able to fire at him is that this is not the France of 1947 and he is no De Gaulle.
In fact, the spit-and-polish, six-foottwo-inch technocrat seems an odd heir to the Gaullist mantle. A banker’s son who graduated from the renowned Ecole National d’Administration before being summoned to the corridors of power, Chirac has all the charisma of a chartered accountant and has devoted much of his energy recently to mellowing his glacial public image by allowing as to how his tastes ran to detective novels and military marches when he had time for them, and posing folksily outside his private chateau in Correzes wearing a bulky fisherman’s sweater. Although he comes from no great wealth, there are reports that one of his strongest backers is aircraft tycoon Marcel Dassault, believed to be the richest man in France.
While his political savvy, shrewd organizational talents and boundless personal ambition are celebrated, Chirac is known in France as a man of action and no raving intellectual—in direct contrast to French President Valéry Giscard D’Estaing, the man with whom he had a public fallingout just four months ago. During the 1974 presidential election, Chirac betrayed his own party’s candidate, former premier Jacques Chaban-Delmas, to support Giscard, an independent Republican, and when it came time for the new president to choose the man who was to work with his Gaullist-dominated majority coalition in parliament, he duly rewarded Chirac’s foresight with the prime ministership. It had been public knowledge ever since that the split between the two was growing increasingly wider, and it came as little surprise in August when Chirac, impatient with Giscard’s cautious middle-of-theroad reforms, resigned in a fit of pique charging that he hadn’t been given enough power to govern. Within a week, he was out organizing his Rassemblement—and setting himself on a sure collision course with Giscard. With the next presidential election five years away, it is still too early to predict what will happen when the bulldozer confronts the cool aristocrat. But for the moment, at least, Giscard’s political fortunes have never been lower. Although he publicly waved off the UDR’S transformation into the RPR as “a question of alphabet,” sources close to the Elysée say the president is worried: once he had just the growing threat on the left to concern himself with; now he finds himself besieged on the right as well.
In his drive for power, though, Chirac may end up bowling over Giscard but defeating his own ends. By shoving a wedge between the right-to-centre forces of the current majority, he leaves Mitterand’s socialist-Communist troops in a stronger position. Ironically, the bulldozer may be all the Communists need to push them to victory. MARCI MCDONALD
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