Is Jacques Chirac owed an apology?
As we all know, Nicolas Sarkozy triumphed to power a year ago by promising a break with the past, that oft-cited rupture. His presidency would be a glowing series of courageous reforms, turning to new pages and a celebration of new faces.
For the first few months, it indeed seemed the case, but as many of have noted, that all turned sour, with the emergence of Sarkozy the everyday man, a character manifestly incapable of portraying both dynamism and the consistency of power as the French are used to it. Sarkozy is too unstable a man which makes him too inconsistent a leader (no follow through, you could more simply complain).
And so what?
That's where Chirac comes in. Sarkozy's predecessor was President of the Republic for twelve long years and during that time, as Sarkozy himself tells us ad infinitum, nothing happened. Chirac became an almost spectral presence, letting his ministers handle the everyday implementation of power, while he rarely came beyond his Elysee windows and only to make brief and passing pronouncements.
But it didn't really matter. France continued, carried along on the one hand by globalisation and Europe, and on the other by the modern citizen's increasing ability to lead a life without politics (unless it it becomes particularly moving or entertaining).
Under these terms Chirac presided, bearing witness to the fact that power and consequence was manufactured elsewhere, in a mysterious continuum uniting Brussells, Davos, military patrols in Sadr city or Afghanistan and France's comfortably numbing retreat into a globalist consumerism.
Eyeing Chirac from below the pedestal, Sarkozy failed to appreciate this historical powerlessness. He couldn't fathom that Chirac's effacement was not in fact a failure, but an actual reflection of what the job offered, what being President of France, as lived, actually meant.
So he chose to remedy an ailment that has no a cure, exploding into late 2007 with his barrage of announcements, promises, challenges and affronts. Sarkozy wasn't Chirac, he was on the move, making things happen.
But, for what? What Chirac came to realize in his tenure is that France's Presidency is about silence and bearing witness. It is about having nothing to do, about just watching where the chips actually fall and claiming them , if you want (but dishonestly), as your own.
Sarkozy hates silence, he hates an empty table with no one to see him, engage him. In that case, he must hate being the president, because when it actually matters, when things are actually important, he must sit there silently and watch that infamous abyss stare back at him. Here, action, almost always, ends as a mistake.
And Chirac, all along, could have told him that.