Lessons from past for Les Républicains new leader

Simon Heffer, the renowned political commentator and historian, turns his gaze to French politics

30 October 2019
By Simon Heffer

When, on October 13, Christian Jacob, a farmer who served as civil service minister in the second Chirac administration, was elected leader of the benighted Républicains, hardly a ripple was noted on the pond in France, and still less of one outside the Hexagon.

Following the party’s pitiful performance in the European elections last Spring, when they recorded less than 8.5% of the vote, Mr Jacob must lick them into shape for the municipal elections, due in March.

It will be an almighty job: the party’s membership has dropped from 235,000 to around 130,000 since 2017, and one can almost hear the squeals as it is crushed between the centrist touchy-feeliness of President Macron’s La République en Marche and the still-rejuvenating pungency of the Rassemblement National, the party formerly known as the Front National, under Marine Le Pen.

The centre-right in France has had a particularly bad run. The pincer movement against it started before the 2017 election and was accelerated by the events surrounding the imploding candidacy that year of François Fillon, who had used state funds improperly in putting much of his family on his payroll.

Fillon had been a capable prime minister under Nicolas Sarkozy, unusually lasting the whole of his presidency – French presidents usually change their prime ministers in the way most people change their underwear – and being almost the only aspect of that regime that, in the end, gave it credibility.

When his irregularities were rumbled the party, already losing popularity under Sarkozy’s often capricious, arrogant and bling-infested rule, nosedived.

That dive was not arrested by Laurent Wauquiez, the charmless operator who led them until the Euro-debacle.

Les Républicains found they had nothing new or compelling to say that could rival the message of either of their main opponents; but that was the inevitable culmination of a long process of political lassitude.

Sarkozy himself came into power in 2007 promising massive reforms that never happened, and quickly established himself as a time-server for whom the ultimate position in the French nation was one he relished for its status and not for how he could use it to change France for the better. In that he followed the example of his former mentor, Jacques Chirac, who died just over a fortnight before Mr Jacob, who had served him unspectacularly but well, picked up the poisoned chalice.

Chirac’s obituaries in France were mainly reverential, hypocritically so when it came to media outlets that had spent his political lifetime abominating him.

Those overseas, particularly in the Anglosphere, were less obliging. Chirac’s great advantage was that he incarnated an image of the French presidency that his people felt fulfilled their expectations of the incumbent of the post: his film-star looks (the sublime Jean Dujardin must, one thinks, be lined up already to play him in the biopic), his legendary charm and supposed power over women, but above all his grandeur, which enabled him, at least for most of his career, to cut corners and get away with it.

But what Chirac eventually learned (and this should be a lesson for Boris Johnson now he holds high political office in Britain, and acts in a comparably irregular way) is that there is always a man at the top of the escalator waiting to collect your ticket.

In Chirac’s case, this meant his conviction for corruption in 2011, four years after he had left office.

To those who had studied Chirac’s career closely, during 18 years as Mayor of Paris and two terms as prime minister before he got into the Elysée Palace, it was astonishing that he had got away with it that long.

For Chirac, politics – with the odd notable moment of grace, such as when he apologised for France’s role is assisting the Nazis’ genocide of the Jews – was about the cynical and pleasurable exercise of power, the acquisition of status that goes with it, and the potential for the enrichment of self and of one’s cronies. 

When it came to using power to transform France – to break it out of a stultifying post-war consensus that had caused near paralysis under his predecessor, François Mitterrand – Chirac was hopeless.

When he managed to take a decision he would often, as Mitterrand himself found when he had to endure a period of cohabitation with Chirac as his prime minister, rapidly contradict himself.

The economic problems of France and particularly the loss of international competitiveness were only made worse by Chirac’s refusal to have the type of deregulatory upheaval that had rescued Britain from the financial knacker’s yard under Margaret Thatcher.

During his first term, unemployment, which Chirac had sworn he would cut, rose, and all that was cut were the social security benefits paid to those who were out of work.

In 1997, he recklessly called an election and ended up with his sworn adversary, Lionel Jospin, as his prime minister in a paralytic period of cohabitation.

He only managed re-election himself as president because expected rival Lionel Jospin’s own ineptitude let Jean-Marie Le Pen into the final round against Chirac.

Because of Chirac’s own intellectual and political insecurities, and his determination to keep treating the French as though it was still the late 1940s, and wounds had to be healed after the Occupation, his second term was as stagnant and as unimaginative as his first.

He, like Sarkozy after him, never sought to confront the French people with the need for radical change, the need for incentives and for the state to withdraw and to allow the operation of a low-tax, low-spend free-market economy.

That remains his legacy to the centre-right, which under M Wauquiez certainly showed it had learned nothing about the need for change and an end to jobbery.

Perhaps Mr Jacob will take that lesson, as he reflects on the failure of his late political chief.

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