It started off rather badly!
On his journey towards the highest office in France, in order to win over the Gaullists, Jacques Chirac rallied to his side the French sovereignists, who had always fostered “true” nationalism, as they denounced (6th December 1978) the pro-Europeans as the "foreigners". Hence, Chirac beat the European right by helping to bring François Mitterrand to power, then by using this as a support, he won the presidential election in 1995.
During this long career to the top, as he gathered experience in the posts to which he was appointed, Jacques Chirac could not do otherwise but evolve into a European based on reason. In virtue of this he embodied the development of part of the French population.
He did not hold the faith, but he was won over to European integration. His taste for international relations and his links with the world's main leaders, with whom he constantly met, gradually convinced him of the pertinence of the European project. His hate of war, his respect for foreign cultures urged him, as it did all of the Presidents of France's V Republic, to assert his country's commitment to Europe, which still ranks uppermost in terms of its diplomacy. With the support of Helmut Kohl, he supported the adoption, via referendum, of the Maastricht Treaty, which divided his political party however.
For a time, he was irritated by some of the "ritualistic" aspects of the Franco-German relationship, but Jacques Chirac learned the lesson of the Nice Summit in December 2000. Because of some discord between France and Germany, this summit, under Chirac's presidency, endorsed a treaty which heralded the regression of the French positions in Europe. After this, he launched the 'Blaesheim meetings' which took place around "a beer and a good meal", and this enabled the two partners to prepare their European work together and to set out common positions ahead of time.
Finally, in response to Joshka Fischer, the German Foreign Affairs Minister, who called for a "European Federation", he put forward the idea of an "institutional review" of Europe to the Bundestag on 27th June 2000, which should have led to the adoption of a "European Constitution". We all know what happened when France again rejected the project, which it had itself initiated, as was the case in 1954 with the European Community of Defence.
Hence, Jacques Chirac was the perfect embodiment of an uncertain, hesitant European France which was disturbed, upset by European integration and divided as to its ultimate form, but nevertheless committed to its development, because its national interests were at stake.
Having little knowledge of the common institutions, which the French do not like because they already have a strong State, Jacques Chirac thought of Europe beyond the community dimension. Quite rightly we acknowledge him for his opposition to the second war in Iraq, whose end and consequences he had anticipated. We welcomed the dialogue he held with populations and their leaders on all continents, and more especially in Africa and Asia. He honoured Europe, and the French could identify with this aspect of his work.
Indeed, for them, Europe carries a message of universality, which advocates peace and cooperation between people, the respect of human rights, and a multilateralism which today is in harmony with the environmental cause. Its history, its experience, as well as its economic and trade successes allow it to have more influence in international relations. It must not resign itself to a world led by autocrats and dictators in which only power or even nationalist struggles count. It cannot give in to the cynicism of Realpolitik.
In this it is true to its very essence, its message of reconciliation and its model of society which brings together the law, culture and solidarity in such an original manner. For these reasons and whatever its alliances, Europe cannot relinquish its independence of judgement and action. It must do everything it can to win this back and think of itself more as a power. From the very beginning this has been France’s unfulfilled wish and for a time Jacques Chirac embodied this. Recent events have once again legitimised this expectation.
Challenged by scientific, ethical, economic, social, environmental, sanitary and humanitarian issues …The international Community is struggling to respond collectively, which cannot be achieved by one State alone, however rich or powerful it is. And the old school of international politics is trying to confuse this quest for efficacy with outdated responses in the shape of archaic nationalism. At the UN they speak of the future of the seas, global warming, refugees, urbanisation, education or the condition of women and some would like to speak just of Iran, China or Russia! Europe rose above this primary the most ineffective form of nationalism a long time ago.
And yes, from this point of view Jacques Chirac was indeed French and European! In Europe he lacked fibre, but he understood the codes. He held no passion for the European Union, its institutions or its treaties, but he came to believe that they were necessary and acknowledged their successes. “We should gauge with pride the distance we have come,” he declared to the European Parliament on 14th December 1999.
He dismissed the French Eurosceptics to their extremes and confined extremism to indignity, ending his term in office respected by the Heads of State and government of Europe and also by his fellow countrymen and women, who however never really gave him any credit.
He did indeed embody the French, those ever so proud Cartesians of brilliant thought, the incandescent lovers of institutional debate, convinced of their singularity, passionate of their own divisions, slightly cynical sceptics who love to indulge in the easy criticism of imperfect, incomplete European integration.
But in addition to his natural distinction and incomparable charisma, he gave Europe true pragmatism and a sharp vision of international relations.
In the European arena he enjoys an aura that is far superior to his domestic political successes. Whilst the German Social Democrats were implementing painstaking reform, France continued to spend, spend, spend! It had to pay for this complacency and inertia for a long time. Now it is trying to correct these errors, so that it can remain a credible European partner.
Indeed, all of this defines quite neatly what was France’s European policy for a long time – between the “Call of Cochin” and the Constitution, between commitment and disillusion. Now it has returned to a more enthusiastic phase. Jacques Chirac was not of the lineage of the great French Europeans -Robert Schuman, Valery Giscard d'Estaing or François Mitterrand. But he did succeed in protecting and sometimes donning their legacy, thereby enabling their descendants to take up the flame once more