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Chirac’s complex legacy

French President Jacques Chirac, right, welcomes Ariel Sharon at the Elysee Palace in Paris in 2005.  (Amos BenGershom/GPO/BP Images)

French President Jacques Chirac, right, welcomes Ariel Sharon at the Elysee Palace in Paris in 2005.
(Amos BenGershom/GPO/BP Images)

PARIS (JTA) — No matter who ultimately wins France’s election for president, it will mark the end of an era — four decades of extraordinary and occasionally controversial political activity by Jacques Chirac. Chirac has been both admired and despised by his own colleagues, praised in Africa and criticized in Europe, befriended by Arab leaders while sometimes loathed by American politicians.French voters go to the polls April 22 in the first round of voting to choose his successor.Jacques Rene Chirac was born in Paris in November 1932. After graduating from the prestigious National School of Administration, the training ground for much of France’s political elite, he fought as a young lieutenant and was wounded in France’s Algerian war. Chirac entered politics soon after his return home. In 1974 he was appointed prime minister by President Valery Giscard d’Estaing, but resigned after two years.In 1977 he was elected mayor of Paris, a post he held for 18 years — surviving several corruption scandals — and served again as prime minister from 1986 to 1988. Chirac twice ran unsuccessfully for president before before beating his Socialist rival in 1995. Political experts say Chirac never had a clear political agenda of his own. Though he leads a right-of-center party, the Union for a Popular Movement, his ideas often appear closer to socialism then to free-market economic principles. In the international arena, Chirac frequently has called on Western leaders to invest more in Third World countries and give them trade preferences to encourage the export of products from Africa, a region of the world to which he devoted the most attention. Chirac takes pride in his idea of a “poverty tax” on rich countries to raise money to develop poor countries, and is known for championing the international fight against AIDS.In France Chirac is a natural politician, meeting farmers, patting cows and cuddling babies. He’s known as a shrewd political animal, merciless toward competitors from the right or left. He has forged many alliances and broken even more, say his rivals — some of whom used to be his friends.Still, even his opponents agree that no other post-World War II French leader has fought anti-Semitism, which has surged in France since the Palestinian intifada began in 2000, like Chirac. It seems almost as if this fight has become a mission for Chirac, perhaps one of the only issues in which he truly believes and to which he is ideologically committed.Two events have indelibly marked Chirac’s relations with the French Jewish community.The first was his famous “vel d’hiv” speech of July 1995 in which Chirac, newly elected, acknowledged once and for all France’s responsibility, under the Vichy regime, for the deportation of thousands of French Jews to Nazi death camps.The second occurred this year, four months before the end of his political career, when Chirac inaugurated at the national Pantheon a memorial for a French Righteous Gentile who saved thousands of Jews from extermination in the Holocaust.Both acts set a norm for future French politicians, obliging political leaders and the bureaucracy to fight anti-Semitism fiercely.Chirac’s attitude toward Israel has been much more complex on political and personal levels.Chirac has nurtured warm relations with many Arab leaders over the years. The late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat used to call him “Dr. Chirac.” Jordan’s late King Hussein was a close friend. So was Rafik Hariri, the assassinated Lebanese prime minster. Chirac made frequent visits to Middle Eastern and Persian Gulf countries, traveling to Saudi Arabia five times as president – more often than he came to Washington. That may not be surprising considering Chirac’s belief that Europe should stand as a counterweight to America’s international political hegemony.For many years Chirac championed France’s “pro-Arab” policy, often at the expense of relations with Israel. Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, who harshly criticized anti-Semitism in France and urged French Jews to leave for Israel, was “persona non grata” in France early in his term. Israeli officials, for their part, accused the Chirac government of spearheading Europe’s general anti-Israel approach — motivated, they claimed, both by Chirac’s desire to be seen as the great defender of the Palestinian cause and by French commercial interests.Chirac’s visit to Israel and the Palestinian territories in December 1996 was marked by a diplomatic incident when he visited a church under extraterritorial French protection in Jerusalem’s Old City, which Israel captured in the 1967 Six-Day War. Chirac loudly claimed that Israeli bodyguards were too brutal in pushing back a mob of Palestinians seeking to greet the French leader; to Israelis, it came off as grandstanding at the Jewish state’s expense.But when Sharon, generally portrayed by French media as a warmongering beast, presented his Gaza withdrawal plan, Chirac began to see the Israeli prime minister in a different light and Sharon suddenly was welcome in the French capital.Visiting Paris in July 2005, Sharon rewarded the new French enthusiasm by referring to Chirac as “one of the world’s greatest leaders,” and both countries seemed keen to build better relations. Jerusalem and Paris were in general agreement on the need to stabilize Lebanon and act against Iran’s nuclear program. When Israeli President Moshe Katsav arrived in Paris three years ago, he was welcomed with all possible honors. Chirac even ordered that the Elysee Palace get new cutlery to accommodate Katsav’s kosher diet.Chirac will be remembered in Jerusalem as a sometime-friend of Israel and sometime-hardline opponent, and certainly as one of the Arab world’s strongest allies in the West — but always as a great friend of the Jewish people and a fighter against anti-Semitism.