Jacques Chirac may be facing the battle of a lifetime as he faces trial on corruption charges, but that hasn’t prevented the ex-president from dropping a political bombshell into the lap of his successor and party colleague Nicolas Sarkozy ahead of next year’s presidential election.
In his memoirs, published last month, Chirac launches a scathing broadside against at the current head of state. Sarkozy, said Chirac, was “nervous, impetuous, brimming with ambition and not doubting anything, certainly not himself”. This unprecedented public admonition of a would-be political ally has rattled the French political class, particularly the UMP, the right-wing ruling party to which they both belong.
Although Chirac waited a long time before opening fire, his remark is emblematic of the stormy relationship that has long prevailed between two of the most charismatic political leaders in France’s recent history. It has also drawn attention to the decidedly frosty atmosphere that permeates the upper echelons of France’s largest political party.
Chirac and Sarkozy first met in 1975, when Chirac was prime minister and Sarkozy a relatively unknown 20-year-old law student in Nanterre. Outwardly, the pair had little in common, but in fact their first encounter played out like a scene from a Hollywood movie. It also appears to have been a defining moment in the early stages of their relationship.
Both were attending a conference in Paris when Chirac permitted the long-haired Sarkozy to address a group of leading figures from the then ruling party, the UDR. After a memorable 20-minute speech, the crowd rose to its feet to applaud the budding politician. Afterwards Chirac told Sarkozy he was “meant for politics” and took him under his wing. It was the beginning of a lengthy love-hate liaison, in the glowing formative days of which Chirac portrayed his eventual successor as “one of the most gifted politicians of his generation”.
It was not until 1993 that their protracted political honeymoon came to an abrupt end when Sarkozy stunned Chirac by choosing to support his adversary Edouard Balladur as the UMP candidate for the 1995 presidential election. Sarkozy became Balladur’s foremost political spokesman, to the great despair and anger of Chirac, who until then had regarded the younger man almost as a family member. Others saw the familial bonds extending beyond the two men, with rumours abounding in the 1980s that Sarkozy was having an affair with Chirac’s daughter Claude, a claim she later vigorously denied.
But it was Sarkozy’s defection to the court of Balladur that left the deepest scars, as mutterings about “that little bastard Sarko” began to emerge from Chirac’s closest circle. Chirac’s wife Bernadette captured the prevailing mood when she exclaimed: “And to think, he has seen us in our night-clothes!”
A few months prior to the election, Balladur topped the polls and seemed certain to be the next French president. In French politics, however, favourites do not always make it to the Elysee palace, as evidenced by the political downfall this year of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and Balladur eventually faltered at the finishig line.
Chirac and Sarkozy later got over their rift and the rising political powerhouse was offered top ministerial posts after Chirac’s reelection in 2002. Sarkozy spent the next five years working first as interior minister, then as finance minister, two of the most prestigious jobs in the French government.
It didn’t take long before tensions once more began to simmer, however, with a series of disagreements developing into open warfare just a year into Chirac’s new term of office when Sarkozy announced that he planned to run as a candidate in the next presidential election.
Sarkozy barely took the trouble to conceal his animosity towards his one-time mentor. Despite being entirely au fait with Chirac’s famous love of Sumo wrestling and all things Japanese, Sarkozy wondered aloud in a 2004 interview with Paris Match: “How on earth can anyone be fascinated by fights between obese guys with slicked-back buns? Sumo is not an intellectual sport”. It was hardy subtle, and followers of French politics had little trouble decoding the slur.
In Le rebelle et le Roi (‘The rebel and the king’), a book about the relationship between Chirac and Sarkozy, French journalist Béatrice Gurrey recounts an astonishing anecdote. On the eve of Bastille Day 2004, Chirac took aim with a make-believe rifle, pointed it at his rival and whispered to a colleague: “Do you see Sarkozy? Bang, bang, bang!”
The underlying tensions emerged again the following day. In his traditional televised Bastille Day address, President Chirac made reference to an issue on which the pair were divided, saying: “I decide; he carries out my orders”.
Sarkozy exacted a revenge of sorts on the same date two years later. While other top politicians attended the Elysee palace to listen to the presidential address, Sarkozy hosted a garden party in an open act of defiance towards the president.
Sarkozy’s supporters, for their part, felt that the Chirac circle was intent on undermining their man’s progress. ‘Sarkozistes’ have long viewed Chirac’s closest allies as the source of rumours about difficulties between Sarkozy and his then wife, Cecilia, in 2004. Dominique de Villepin, then prime minister and a close friend of Chirac’s, later wondered: “How can a man who cannot keep his own woman rule France?” Sarkozy’s backers also had their suspicions when his name appeared on a fake list of unofficial and illegal bank accounts supposedly based in Luxemburg.
The battle resumed in September 2006, when Sarkozy proclaimed his admiration for the United States and criticized what many regard as the greatest achievement of Chirac’s 14-year-old term: saying ‘no’ to President Bush and keeping France out of the Iraq war.
Even after becoming president, Sarkozy kept his predecessor in his sights. Asked in 2009 if he minded being referred to as the “omni-president” in reference to his supposed hyperactivity, he responded: “I’d rather that than being called a lazy king”.
Recent reports suggesting that Chirac was starting to become absent-minded and doddery prompted his wife Bernadette to deny on national radio that her husband was suffering from Alzheimer’s. But health issues notwithstanding, the 78-year-old statesman remains a thorn in the side of Sarkozy as he faces the daunting task of securing reelection next year.
Last month, Chirac stunned the political establishment with claims that he was planning to reject Sarkozy and vote instead for the socialist François Hollande. Two days later he issued a statement insisting the apparent snub was simply “humour from Corrèze”, the home region he shares with Hollande. However, many in the Sarkozy camp failed to see the funny side.
The state of the UMP is certainly serious enough, with the long-standing rivalry between Sarkozy and Chirac increasingly reflective of a larger rift within the party. Over the past year, Sarkozy has steered it further to the right, taking tougher stances on immigration and national security in an apparent attempt to fend off the threat posed by the rising popularity of Front National leader Marine Le Pen.
Many old ‘Chiraquiens’, most notably Dominique de Villepin, have declared themselves uncomfortable with the party’s new direction. Indeed, the latest chapter in the Sarkozy-Chirac saga brings the relationship to a potentially critical juncture, since it offers two starkly different visions of how France should be governed. More and more it seems that, if Sarkozy is to have any chance of holding onto the presidency until 2017, he will need to find a way of getting the Chirac loyalists back onside. Et vite.