Alia Ibrahim | Instructor in the Multimedia Journalism Program at the Lebanese American University, former senior correspondent for the Al-Arabiya news channel
Jacques Chirac will be remembered by most of the world as the leader who loudly said “no” to the United States’ 2003 invasion of Iraq. But for Arabs collectively, it is his views of Palestine that will keep his legacy alive.
A political master, Chirac projected the image of a great friend of the Arabs. “Doctor Chirac,” as the late Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat loved to call him, ended up seeing the Palestinian cause “solely through Arafat’s eyes,” according his secretary, who was interviewed for the book Chirac d’Arabie: Les Mirages D’une Politique Francaise, by Eric Aeschimann and Christophe Boltanski.
But that had not always been the case. In interviews during his time as mayor of Paris, Chirac attacked the Palestinians and their leader to appeal to his pro-Israel constituency. Will this matter as his memory fades? It most likely won’t, nor will the stories of corruption, hidden agendas, and personal favors that linked him to dictators such as Saddam Hussein, which was believed to be behind his decision to oppose the Iraq war. This was politics and time forgives.
It is the personal touch that will prevail. Chirac will be remembered as the president who cried at the funeral of Rafiq al-Hariri and the leader who hosted Arafat in a French hospital during his final days. In Gaza, a street bears his name in remembrance of his famous trip to Ramallah in 1996. During that trip little Palestinian girls sang “Au Claire de La Lune” and waved French flags. The agenda was preplanned, but the gratitude was real and fresh. A day earlier, Chirac had given Palestinians a rare gift. He had taken his Israeli security detail to task because they had severely curtailed his movements, and those of the people welcoming him, while on a walk around old Jerusalem. “Do you want me to leave and go to my plane now? This is not security, this is mere provocation,” Chirac had told the security officers. That’s something Palestinians and Arabs will never forget.
François d’Alançon | Foreign correspondent at the La Croix newspaper in France
In light of the current crisis with Iran, I recall the joint interview that Jacques Chirac gave to the New York Times, the International Herald Tribune, and the Nouvel Observateur in February 2007. Though the interview was on the environment, the journalists took the opportunity to question Chirac on Iran’s nuclear ambitions. Chirac remarked: If Iran gets its way, “the danger is not the bomb it will have. […] What is dangerous is proliferation. It is really very tempting for other countries in the region that have large financial resources, to say: ‘Well, we too, we’re going to do it …’”
Most media outlets described these words as a blunder. Chirac insisted in a second interview the next day that France believed with its United Nations Security Council counterparts that Iran must stop the uranium enrichment process. To his merit, he was right on several points. The danger of a nuclearization of Iran lies much more in the regional and global proliferation it would provoke than in an attack on Israel, which would result in mutual destruction. The French president was also not wrong in pointing out to the Iranian public that a nuclear adventure would not bring anything to Shi‘a Iran except being surrounded by Sunni countries that also would have the bomb. He was also trying to get the point across that instead of trying to isolate Iran further through new sanctions, the solution would be to start negotiations on regional security with all relevant state actors. Does this sound familiar?
Marc Pierini | Visiting scholar at Carnegie Europe, former European Union career diplomat (1976–2012)
Like many people working on Middle Eastern issues, I vividly remember Jacques Chirac’s anger when visiting Jerusalem’s souqs because he was being too tightly protected by Israeli security personnel. The episode typically illustrated Chirac’s profound desire to be in touch with real people, to be able to stop and shake hands and exchange a few words. For those who watched him during his visits to other countries, it was obvious that his hallmark was a profound empathy for people.
More importantly, I remember the June 2000 state funeral of the late Syrian president Hafez al-Assad, when I was EU ambassador in Damascus. Of the fifteen members of the European Council of the time, only Jacques Chirac and Romano Prodi, then the president of the European Commission, attended the funeral. Their common gesture had a clear motive: to encourage the new president, Bashar al-Assad, to make decisive moves toward economic and political reforms. What ensued was the short-lived “Damascus Spring.” That day, both Chirac and Prodi had side meetings with Assad, and Prodi later came back with offers of support. Not only did the reforms not take place, but nineteen years later the country is living a humanitarian, economic, and political nightmare. At least Jacques Chirac had had the courage to try to make things different.
Joseph Bahout | Permanent consultant to the Center for Analysis, Forecasting, and Strategy at the French Foreign Ministry, nonresident fellow in the Carnegie Middle East Program
Among the French leaders of the past quarter century, Jacques Chirac was probably the best incarnation of what has been labeled “France’s Arab policy.” This includes personal relations with most Arab leaders, a blend of liberal internationalism alongside acute realism, a constant quest for remaining equidistant between the United States and Russia, as well as sympathy for emerging powers, which was often interpreted as skepticism toward Atlanticism.
This latter feature was undoubtedly one of the drivers of the famous “No” in 2003. This was the historical, and rare, veto that France used in the United Nations Security Council to prevent the United States from going to war against Iraq, a country whose nuclear program Chirac was suspected of having helped to build. Nonetheless, it was the same Chirac who crafted a few months later, along with the United States, Security Council 1559, which ultimately led to Syria’s withdrawal from Lebanon after the assassination of the president’s intimate friend Rafiq al-Hariri. Yet only months after that, France would again take a different tack than Washington during the July 2006 war between Israel and Hezbollah.
Chirac was very French both in his personality and political culture, which is why it was such a paradox that his impact was felt more abroad than at home. This was only one of the paradoxes of a man who embodied so many.