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Young & Kent: International Relations since 1945 2e

Jacques Chirac

Jacques René Chirac has been the president of France since 1995. Born in Paris in 1932, Chirac studied at the Institut d'Études Politiques, a university for students interested in politics and diplomacy, and he earned a diploma in political science in 1954. In 1956 Chirac was drafted into the army and served in Algeria, where France was engaged in a colonial war. In 1957 Chirac returned to France and enrolled in the École Nationale d'Administration, a school for government service. He received his graduate degree in 1959 and became a civil servant.

In April 1962 Chirac joined the staff of Georges Pompidou, then prime minister under de Gaulle. This appointment launched Chirac’s political career. At Pompidou’s suggestion, Chirac ran as a Gaullist for a seat in the National Assembly in 1967. He won the election and was given a post in the ministry of social affairs.

Chirac’s first high-level post came in 1972 when he became minister of agriculture and rural development under Pompidou, who was elected president in 1969. In 1974 Chirac was appointed minister of the interior. When Pompidou died in April 1974 and Valéry Giscard d’Estaing became president, Chirac was appointed prime minister. In that same year, he also became secretary general of the conservative Union of Democrats for the Republic (Union des Démocrates pour la République; UDR). Chirac resigned as prime minister in 1976, citing Giscard’s unwillingness to give him authority. He was then elected president of the UDR, which he reorganized into a neo-Gaullist party, Rally for the Republic (Rassemblement pour la République; RPR).

In 1977 Chirac was elected mayor of Paris, a position he held until 1995. As mayor of Paris, Chirac’s political influence grew. In 1995 Chirac won election to the presidency in his third bid for the post, narrowly edging Socialist Party challenger Lionel Jospin. Shortly after taking office, Chirac plunged France into international controversy with a series of nuclear tests in the South Pacific atoll of Muniroa, a French possession. The tests brought widespread international condemnation. Chirac attempted to defuse the global response, which included a boycott of French goods, by committing France to a future nuclear test-ban treaty. On the domestic front, Chirac confronted the difficulty of realizing his bold campaign pledges to simultaneously reduce high unemployment in France and lower public debt ahead of France’s planned participation in a single European currency. Economic austerity measures introduced by Chirac and his conservative prime minister Alain Juppé, including budgetary cutbacks, proved highly unpopular.

In 1997 Chirac, amid rising public discontent, called early legislative elections in a gamble to bolster support for his economic reform program. The gamble backfired. The Socialist Party, joined by other parties on the left, easily defeated the conservative-led government, forcing Chirac into a new period of cohabitation with Jospin as prime minister. Shortly after the elections, Chirac suffered several foreign policy defeats when French proposals to admit Slovenia and Romania into NATO were rejected, and France’s readmission to the full NATO command structure was shelved.

However, Chirac soon reasserted a strong role for France in international affairs. After March 1999 Chirac steered the French effort in NATO’s offensive against the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia (FRY, now the republic of Serbia and Montenegro) over Yugoslav actions in Kosovo, and Chirac regained considerable popularity in the process. In February 2000 Chirac led the EU opposition to the Austrian coalition government that included the far-right nationalist Freedom Party of Jörg Haider. Another major development presided over by Chirac was France’s successful adoption of the single European currency, the euro, beginning in 1999.
In May 2002 Chirac was reelected president of France, overwhelmingly defeating the candidacy of Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-right, anti-immigrant National Front. In July, during the 2002 Bastille Day celebrations, an assassination attempt was made on Chirac as he passed soldiers in an open-top vehicle. He was unhurt in the incident.

In January 2003 Chirac joined with German chancellor Gerhard Schröder to publicly oppose a US-led campaign to invade Iraq as part of its international war on terrorism. The United States, with strong backing from Prime Minister Tony Blair of the United Kingdom, argued that Iraq’s alleged possession of weapons of mass destruction posed a grave threat to regional and international security. Chirac asserted that France, as a permanent member of the United Nations (UN) Security Council, would veto any UN resolution authorizing war. Joined by the governments of Germany and Russia, Chirac argued that UN inspectors should be given more time to determine if Iraq in fact did possess weapons of mass destruction. Chirac’s opposition failed to prevent the US-led invasion of Iraq, which began without the explicit authorization of the UN in March 2003. However, it contributed to the warm reception Chirac received in Algeria, a Muslim country, the same month. Chirac’s visit was the first state visit by a French president to Algeria since that country won its independence from France in 1962.

In July 2004 Chirac announced France would hold a referendum to determine if the country would ratify a proposed EU constitution that promised greater political integration among EU member states. The previous month EU member states had agreed to the final text of the constitution, the result of more than two years of negotiations. France was not bound to hold a referendum, and Chirac’s move reflected his confidence that French voters supported the EU constitution. However, in a major confidence blow for the government, voters rejected the constitution by almost 55 percent. Prime Minister Raffarin duly resigned, and in his place Chirac appointed former foreign minister Dominique de Villepin, a trusted protégé.