Why are we asking this question now?
On New Year's Eve, Jacques Chirac will almost certainly address the nation as president for the last time. Barring some national calamity or crisis before the elections in April and May, this will be the final chance for M. Chirac to speak to his "chers compatriotes" on live television and try to make some sense of the muddle of his 40 years in politics and the calamities of his nearly 12 years in the Elysee Palace.
Will he finally admit that, at 74 years old, and with absurdly low poll ratings, he has no chance of winning another term in office? Will he finally endorse the candidacy of his detested, former protege Nicolas Sarkozy? Probably not. Not yet, anyway.
President Chirac is said to cling to a desperate belief that the French bourgeoisie might still turn to him to save France from Segolene Royal, who is not only a socialist but (choc, horreur) a woman. In truth, if President Chirac decides to run again, it will mostly be to spite Sarkozy. A Chirac-Sarkozy civil war on the moderate right would turn the possibility of a President(e) Royal into a near certainty.
How will Chirac be remembered in France?
Chirac was elected, at his third attempt, in 1995. France was then a fractiously divided nation, with high unemployment and no consensus on how to adapt to the new global economy, while preserving what was most successful, and most French, about France. There was an alarming contempt for mainstream politicians and institutions and a drift to the demagogic and blindly nationalist extremes of right and left. Chirac promised to heal the "social fracture" of the nation.
Eleven years and seven months later, France is exactly where it was in 1995. If anything, the country's democratic health has declined. Cynicism and the attraction of the blind alleys of far right and far left have grown.
Domestically, the Chirac years will go down as 12 years of wasted time. A couple of attempts at timid economic and social reform were interrupted by a cohabitation with a Socialist government, whose monument is the shorter, 35-hour working week (something detested by the centre-right). The suburban riots last year showed that little has been done to heal the "social fracture" of France.
It would be unfair to say that Chirac fiddled while France burned. He dithered while France drifted.
And what is Chirac's record abroad?
Jacques Chirac will always be remembered abroad for having had the guts and foresight to resist the American-British invasion of Iraq in March 2003. He was mon-stered in the American and British press at the time for being a) a bad ally b) in financial hock to Sad-dam Hussein c) anti-American.
Let us recall what Chirac actually said. There is no urgent need to topple Saddam. Occupation of Iraq will be a nightmare. We should concentrate on the struggle against Bin-Ladenism. Real friends and allies do not blindly follow but point out possibly calamitous errors.
Americans especially might care to consider who was the more valuable (though ignored) ally in 2003, Jacques Chirac or Tony Blair. That being said, the rest of Chiraquian foreign policy, and especially European policy, has been incoherent.
President Chirac has failed to advance the "multi-polar" world - ie a world not dominated by American interests and values - which he preached in 2003. He even contributed to a significant defeat for "multi-po-larism", the crippling of the European Union. Chirac pushed for a European constitution and then lost interest. He called a referendum on the constitution in France and failed to sell the idea to his "chers compatriotes". …