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Wednesday, 27 February 2008


He came he saw he conquered – oh yes and he ate and he drank a-plenty as well.

On Tuesday the former French president, Jacques Chirac, spent almost four hours at what he admits is virtually his home-from-home - the annual agricultural fair in Paris.

And what a contrast it was to Saturday’s bad-tempered outburst by his successor, Nicolas Sarkozy.

There was no false bonhomie, no rude jostling and moreover no foul language as Chirac, surrounded by cameras and microphones, strode the aisles smiling and chatting with what was clearly an adoring and somewhat nostalgic public.

This was a man in his element, a swig of French beer here, a quick nibble on a regional cheese there, a happy crunch of an apple and plenty of praise and slapped rumps for the fine beasts on show. Chirac displayed a firm understanding of all things so dear to the heart of many in this country and left more than a few wistful of a bygone era.

“We miss you Monsieur Chirac. It’s not the same now,” lamented a group of teenagers shortly after the former president had stopped to pose for a picture with them.

Such words brought a smile to his face as he continued on his way, refusing steadfastly to be goaded into answering the inevitable question of how he felt about Sarkozy’s “casse toi, pauvre con”. A lesson in itself on how a head of state should behave when confronted with the unexpected. Mind you, in his glory days, Chirac was not one to mince words. He just did it more “presidentially”.

Back in 1996 for example during an already controversial visit to Jerusalem, he famously lost his rag with Israeli security who were continuously shoving Palestinians, reporters and even his own aides to one side.

At one point he turned around to an official and shouted, “I’m starting to have enough of this. What do you want, me to go back to my plane and go back to France? Let them go. Let them go.”

Later the same day the then Israeli prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, made a public apology and Chirac declared the incident forgotten. Sarkozy obviously wasn’t taking notes.

Of course it’s easy to sentimentalise about the past – we do it all the time – but Chirac’s presence at the agricultural fair and in particular the reception he received, was in stark contrast to Sarkozy’s visit.

It certainly helped that he was unencumbered by the shackles of office, but there was a humanity and sincerity about him that seemed to strike a chord with those around him.

All right, so admittedly this is the same man whose last years in office were characterised by a stagnant economy and whose political career was dotted with intrigue, claims of corruption and unspoken philandering. He’s still being investigated for dodgy deals during his time as mayor of Paris.

Hardly commendable by any stretch of the imagination. But that was – and perhaps still is – pretty much par for the course when it comes to French politics.

In contrast the new hyperactive, “Bling, Bling” incumbent runs a supposedly transparent but simultaneously stage-managed machine and that’s proving a little too hard a hard pill for many here to swallow. Open government has become a media deluge concentrating on one person firing on all fronts all the time.

In addition there’s none of the much promised economic prosperity on the horizon, prices are rising and belt-tightening being made almost a national requirement. And then of course there’s the overexposed private life that hits the headlines with an alarming frequency.

It might be a common trait of the French to forgive past presidents their failings once they leave office, but on Tuesday’s evidence, Chirac could teach Sarkozy a thing or two. Such as how to strike a more statesmanlike pose while downing a glass or two of wine rather than milk and showing a genuine interest in discussing the relative merits of a Charolais bull.

1 comment:

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