France's LBJ in the dock
-- Charles de Gaulle
Revolutions notoriously eat their children.
But France's political system reserves
its sharpest cruelties for elderly politicians
as they fall from favor, as de Gaulle
learned in 1968.
Now it is the turn of former president Jacques Chirac,
who was ordered on Friday at age 76
to stand trial on corruption charges.
Let's be honest. Many Americans will be delighted.
They remember only Chirac's final,
bitter years in power, when he fought the U.S.-led invasion
of Iraq and set out to build "multipolar" coalitions
of nations to reduce U.S. "hegemony" now and forever.
But this is far from being the whole story
of Chirac, a truly likable man who was
a bundle of debilitating contradictions
and worthy impulses.
Despite his political war with Washington
and George W. Bush, Chirac is also the most
American of all the French politicians I have ever met.
His gregarious nature, big, rubbery features
and boisterous embrace of friends always made me
think of Lyndon Johnson working a room of rivals
in Washington or John Wayne
striding through the saloon doors.
Often, whether we met at the Paris City Hall,
the presidential palace or the United Nations,
Chirac would talk about how he had fallen
in love with my country, and one of its
pretty young girls, when he was a teenager.
He worked one summer as a soda jerk
at a Howard Johnson's. The romance with
the young lady did not last, but his American
He once asked me at a group luncheon
in a New York restaurant to order
the wine since he was sticking with Budweiser.
So perhaps it should come as no surprise
that he faces trial on allegations that he ran
the Paris mayor's office from 1977 to 1995 much like
Tammany Hall or the Daley machine in Chicago.
The prosecutor, who was constitutionally prohibited
from going after Chirac during his two presidential
terms from 1995 to 2007, now alleges that
the ex-president's party machine
created 21 -- yes, 21 -- fictitious jobs for
its workers with Chirac's knowledge.
For all its American echoes, the historic first
prosecution of a former French president
is an indelibly Gallic affair.
It is a shipwreck not just of an aging politico
who has lived rent-free in a Lebanese politician's spacious
Paris apartment since leaving office,
but also of the country's campaign finance system
and the clans that manipulated it for personal gain.
It is a tale of brutal personal conflicts over money,
power and pride out of Balzac or,
had he been French, Shakespeare.
The trial of Chirac could still be blocked
by a procedural appeal. But his legacy is already
being tarnished in other courtroom brawls.
His former right-hand man, Charles Pasqua,
was sentenced to a year in jail last week
for taking bribes while interior minister.
Pasqua immediately suggested that Chirac
had secretly initiated the prosecution years ago
to block him from running against Chirac for president.
At almost the same time, prosecutors were
demanding the conviction of Chirac's former
prime minister and political heir,
Dominique de Villepin, on charges of having
conspired to falsify documents intended
to end the political career of Nicolas Sarkozy,
who succeeded Chirac as president two years ago
and who has vowed to hang "on a butcher's hook"
those who plotted against him.
It does not, if you can believe it, end there: Chirac
is known as "le grand absent" of the Clearstream
trial (named after the Luxembourg bank where
Sarkozy and others were falsely alleged
to have their secret accounts) since
the ex-president's fury at Sarkozy is widely
assumed to have been the driving force
behind Villepin's alleged campaign of calumny.
Sarkozy was originally a Chirac political protege
and was romantically linked with Chirac's daughter.
He dumped both to pursue his own career,
and Chirac is said to have never forgiven him.
Politics is even more personal in France
than in many other countries. The French, bless them,
never really outgrow the drive to demonstrate
that they are the smartest, or at least
the cleverest, kids in the classroom
and then in the office.
Challenge that core notion,
and you are in for friction or more.
I told Chirac and Villepin in late January 2003
that their hopes of stopping the Bush administration
from invading Iraq would be too little, too late.
They scoffed at my lack
of sophistication: The invasion would produce
disaster and therefore would not be launched.
Unfortunately, I was right, and they
were only half right.
Sent from Kigali, Rwanda
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