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France: Jacques Chirac’s history in Africa

By Christophe Boisbouvier
Posted on Thursday, 26 September 2019 15:33, updated on Saturday, 28 September 2019 05:22

French President Jacques Chirac attending a ceremony in Paris commemorating the abolition of slavery on 10 May 2006. The day of remembrance for that dark period in France's history raised fresh questions over the country's colonial legacy. REUTERS/Charles Platiau

Former president Jacques Chirac passed away on 26 September at the age of 86. He was friends with Omar Bongo Ondimba and Mohammed VI, had sometimes dubious links with the networks of Françafrique and rejected the war in Iraq, which earned him great popularity in the Arab world. What is his legacy?

A lot of what he did was “bullshit”, as he himself admitted, but because he said no to the war in Iraq he could be forgiven for a lot. Like Boris Yeltsin of Russia, Jacques Chirac was one of those leaders at the end of the Cold War who, in the midst of an erratic journey, took at least one great decision in his life.

When, on 14 February 2003, Dominique de Villepin, Chirac’s foreign affairs minister, made it clear to the UN that France would use its right of veto against the war in Iraq, the French president was pilloried by the media of the English-speaking world. In London, The Sun carried the title: “Jacques Chirac, Saddam Hussein’s whore”.

In the United States, the New York Times proposed that France be expelled from the UN Security Council to be replaced by India, a country considered more “serious”. France had not announced its intention to veto a White House draft resolution since 1956. But, on that day in February 2003, the Americans came across a musketeer who had been bottle-fed on Gaullism.

Quest for funding in Africa

Chirac worked with De Gaulle for only two years, from April 1967 to April 1969, as secretary of state in the General’s last two governments. But there are two pillars of the Gaullist pack who helped educate the young wolf in politics: Georges Pompidou, the prime minister, who called him to his side in June 1962 and nicknamed him “my bulldozer”, and Jacques Foccart, De Gaulle’s all-powerful “Monsieur Afrique”, who invited the young adviser to several meetings with African heads of state.

From May 1974, Chirac, the new prime minister, travelled the world and developed friendships with three figures from the Arab world: King Hassan II of Morocco, Libyan leader Muammar Gaddafi and Iraq’s Saddam Hussein, then vice-president. He even helped Iraq to build a nuclear reactor, Osirak, which was destroyed by Israeli aircraft in June 1981. In May 1979, two years after his election as mayor of Paris, Chirac had a brilliant idea. He created the Association Internationale des Maires Francophones. He set up his own networks in Casablanca, Dakar and Brazzaville.

In 1980, when Chirac, then mayor of Paris, decided to run for the presidential election in April 1981 against the outgoing Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, he sought funding and decided to involve Africa. For the Chirac of that time, an African state amount to its leader, who therefore had to be seduced. Warm and spontaneous, the candidate knew how to do it, especially since Foccart was behind him.

In October 1980, in his office at City Hall, he met Omar Bongo for the first time. Right away, they hit it off. Twenty-eight years later, in June 2009, Giscard claimed on Europe 1 radio that Gabonese petrodollars had financed the RPR leader’s campaign in 1981. “I then called Bongo to get an explanation,” he says. Chirac weakly denied it by calling Giscard’s claims “a mediocre polemic”.

He came third in the 1981 presidential election, second in 1988. Until his victory in May 1995, Jacques Chirac, François Mitterrand’s number-one opponent, saw the world with blinkers on. For him, the Palestinian Yasser Arafat was nothing more than a “thug” and a “terrorist leader”, at least until the Oslo agreements in September 1993.

In his opinion, Nelson Mandela was hardly any better. In the second volume of his memoirs, published in June 2011, he wrote that in the early 1970s he had contributed to the financing of the ANC at the request of the King of Morocco. “Hassan II had set up a network for this purpose, to which I discreetly provided my personal assistance,” he said.

But in June 1984, under apartheid, when France’s prime minister Pierre Mauroy refused to receive his South African counterpart Peter W. Botha at his residence, the Hôtel de Matignon, Chirac declared that he did not understand this ostracism. In the 1980s – the last decade of the Cold War – Jacques Chirac’s world view was close to that of the American Ronald Reagan.

Cynical Chirac

In sub-Saharan Africa, it got worse. In February 1990, in the middle Benin’s national conference, he stopped in Abidjan and told Radio France International paternalistically: “Multiparty politics is a kind of luxury that developing countries cannot afford.”

In June 1990, under the influence of his two big mentors, Jacques Foccart and Félix Houphouët-Boigny, he stated his opposition to the La Baule speech, in which François Mitterrand pledged to support the young democracies. He did not believe in the need for regime change in Africa. In private, he even jokingly said: “We must let African presidents win elections, otherwise they will no longer hold them.”

For Chirac, the cynic, a good African president was a president who was a friend to France and to himself. Democracy, human rights… He did not care and, deep down, he did not care until the end.

In December 2003, during a visit to Tunisia locked down under President Zine el-Abidine Ben Ali, he said: “The primary human rights are to eat and have access to healthcare.” In February 2005, when Togo’s president Gnassingbé Eyadéma died after an iron-grip reign of 38 years, Chirac doubled down, paying tribute to “a friend of France” and “a personal friend”.

It is worth noting in passing that, just like De Gaulle, Chirac tended to conflate France with himself. As a scout his nickname had been “ego-centric bison”. Before the presidential elections in April 2002, candidate Chirac received briefcases of cash.

According to his adviser Robert Bourgi, five African presidents sent some $10m in cash to the office of the secretary general of the Elysée, Dominique de Villepin. One of the five, Côte d’Ivoire’s Laurent Gbagbo, confirmed this. And, despite his threats to do so, De Villepin never filed a complaint against Bourgi.

Bellowing diplomacy

After his election in May 1995, it was above all on Arab soil that Chirac the Gaullist went full-speed ahead. In April 1996, forgetting a little too quickly that Mitterrand had already told the Israelis some truths, he announced at Cairo University that he wanted to give “a new impetus” to France’s Arab policy, “faithful to the direction called for by its initiator, General de Gaulle”.

In October 1996, during a visit to Arab neighbourhoods in Jerusalem, he refused to be accompanied by the Israeli mayor Ehud Olmert and shouted in Franglais about Israeli bodyguards who prevented him from greeting the Palestinian inhabitants. This was bellowing diplomacy. Immediately, the French president’s reputation soared in the Arab world and newborns were given the name “Chirac”. In October 2004, Yasser Arafat, who was very ill, was hospitalised in France. Upon his death, Chirac paid tribute to him, from one head of state to another.

Chirac maintained this link with the Arab street. In September 2004, together with Lebanon’s prime minister Rafik Hariri – one of his close friends – he passed a resolution at the UN forcing the Syrian army to withdraw from the country.

After the assassination of Lebanese prime minister Rafic Hariri in February 2005, he fought like a madman for the establishment of a Special Tribunal for Lebanon. Then, after his departure from the Elysée in May 2007, Chirac – still unscrupulous – lived in an apartment that the Hariri family lent him free of charge in Paris, whose rental value was €10,000 per month.

Large gap between Rabat and Algiers

In North Africa, this popularity allowed him to close a big gap. In Rabat, he nearly belonged to the makhzen – the inner circle around the king – defending Morocco’s occupation of Western Sahara, which he called the “southern provinces”, and, from July 1999, taking under his wing the new sovereign, Mohammed VI. At the end of his life, he spent his summers in a palace that the king made available to him, together with a cleaning lady, a cook and two drivers.

In Algiers, Abdelaziz Bouteflika did not hold this against him. In December 2001, three weeks after the deadly flood in Bab el-Oued that left nearly 800 dead he was moved, like all Algerians, by Chirac’s visit to the victims’ families. And in March 2003, at the height of the war in Iraq, Bouteflika said: “If Jacques Chirac avoids war, I would like, on behalf of the Arab people, the African people and all people, including the American people, for him to win the Nobel Peace Prize.”

Chirac never got a Nobel. But he remained a man who had an eye out for others, a sincere advocate for the countries of the South – at the Evian summit in June 2003, he insisted on the presence of Africans at the G8 and the solidarity tax on airline tickets – and, of course, the great resistance fighter against the war in Iraq.

A visionary, he said at the time: “Whatever the duration of this conflict, it will have serious consequences for the future.” February 14 2003 could be described as his 18 June 1940. Where did Chirac get the strength to say no to Bush? In “a certain idea of France”, as De Gaulle said. And in his own nature.

One day in February 1988 in Brussels, at a European summit where Margaret Thatcher exasperated him, he thought the microphone was off and said to his British counterpart: “What the hell does this shrew want? My balls on a platter?” All said and done.

Jacques, the blunderer

In July 1995, during his first presidential visit to the continent, Jacques Chirac invited all West African heads of state to join him in Dakar. Mali’s Alpha Oumar Konaré felt he was being summoned by a colonial minister on an inspection tour and declined the invitation. Chirac’s inelegant reaction was: “Konaré comes from an ideological grouping that does not bring him closer to us.”

In December 2001, during the Christmas break, Chirac “forgot” to go to the funeral of Léopold Sédar Senghor in Dakar. In Senegal and France, many voices said they were outraged. In June 2011, to make up for his big mistake, Chirac wrote in the second volume of his memoirs: “Thanks to some exceptional men like Léopold Sédar Senghor, Abdou Diouf and Nelson Mandela, the African continent has provided the rest of the world with admirable examples of courage, wisdom and dignity.”

In February 2005, Chirac allowed the legislature to pass a law that recognised the “positive role” of French colonisation, “especially in North Africa”. Abdelaziz Bouteflika denounced “a mental blindness bordering on negationism and revisionism”. In private, Chirac finally agreed that this law was “big bullshit”. In January 2006, he had it downgraded by the Constitutional Council.

This article first appeared in Jeune Afrique.

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