Sunday, September 4, 2011

"La vieillesse est un naufrage"

So, Jacques Chirac is afflicted with anosognosie, which, if my scientific Latin serves, means that he doesn't know what he's afflicted with. It's a sad end to an impressive career and one that will no doubt deprive us of the final spectacle of a former president having to defend a corrupt system in court. Whatever one thought of Chirac's politics, one had to admire the political animal, and Chirac's animal instincts in the political jungle were unrivaled. Although Mitterrand earned the epithet "le Florentin," it might equally well have applied to his perennial rival and sometime confederate.

I never met Chirac, but I know many people who have and who assure me that he was far more impressive in private than in public. He never quite mastered the television cameras, before which he always struck me as a bit artificial, cabotin, uncertain of his power to persuade. But persuasion is not really the métier of the pure politician, whose element is power, not reason, and Chirac knew the manifold arts of power as well as anyone. He could neutralize a superior force by playing it off against another, almost equal--and to himself equally hostile--force: witness his use of Mitterrand against Giscard.

This pure politics isn't, of course, the politics that armchair intellectuals like myself usually gravitate toward, but, perhaps chastened by disappointment with Obama's inability to outmaneuver his enemies, we sometimes feel a sneaking admiration for wizened old warriors, even--or perhaps especially--those whose cunning defeated our side more than once.

The trial will probably go on, but what will we learn that we don't already know? That among the ways of power that Chirac mastered was of course the way of money, and that one of the ways of securing the loyalty of henchmen and even potential enemies is to fund them through sinecures hidden in the recesses of this or that governmental budget. So Chirac allegedly created fictitious jobs for which the city of Paris paid when he was mayor. His henchmen have already taken the fall for some of these offenses, and Juppé, after his years in the desert, is even back in power and glory comme si de rien n'était. In short, the law may sanction the ways of power, but nobody really cares about what everyone knew was a system governed by the rules of a now bygone era. The rules have changed, but corruption remains, and the only corruption that truly shocks is that which goes beyond the unwritten rules of each political epoch. How far did Chirac stray? We'll probably never know, although reporters like Franz-Olivier Giesbert like to embellish their books with stories of suitcases full of cash disbursed from safes hidden behind pictures in the office of the mayor of Paris, and no one bats an eyelash. This is just accepted as the folklore of French government. No proof or corroboration is necessary to print such items.

For a lucid and thoughtful appreciation of Chirac's career, see the forthcoming review of his memoirs by my friend and colleague George Ross, who was actually once a student of Chirac's at Sciences Po. It will appear in French Politics, Culture, & Society.


Massilian said...

"comme si de rien n'était", doesn't seem appropriate. Juppé was ultimately sentenced to 14 monthes "avec sursis" and one year of "inéligibilité". It could have been worse but he paid the price, and I don't think he felt it was "comme si de rien n'était".

Robert said...

Very nice "appreciation," but I feel it was more Mitterrand who used Chirac against Giscard rather than the other way around.

Anonymous said...

I think the trial ought to take place, if only to vindicate the judges who were pressured to give up, again and again, and again still. Nobody has any expectation it'll deliver justice but at least it'll send the signal that obfuscation shouldn't get what it wants, each time. There's also a sense that "little guys" are always shafted by the French justice system, so while everyone wants the poor guy to be left alone, they still want the trial for equality's sake. Pretty complex in the end.

Anonymous said...

Between the Chirac trial/potential Alzheimer, and Raffarin's battle over theme parks (?!!) Le campus was odd.

(Raffarin used the poor as a pretext, mostly his problem was that he's got 3 in his area: one science-based: Futuroscope, one for little kids with various species of lambs and sheep "moutonvillage", and one for families dedicated to monkeys and apes "vallée des singes".)

Just for fun:


Alex Price said...

I'm not going to earn a lot of love with this comment -- and won't deserve it, for that matter -- but the pedant in me can't help remarking that scientific Latin won't help with understanding "anosognosie," as the roots are entirely Greek.

Arthur Goldhammer said...

Whoops. Small Latin, less Greek.