Deep in rural France, the ancient village of Sarran (population: 300) boasts a strange museum. It's a 4 million euro building, constructed at the expense of today's French and European taxpayers, and very modern, to be sure. But its spirit harks back to the cabinets de curiosite of the 18th century, in which the great dilettantes of the French Enlightenment accumulated vast eccentric collections that often revealed the hidden corners of their minds. Sarran's cabinet is all about French President Jacques Chirac, who traces his family roots and his political origins to this region of Correze.
One of the most notable bits of inventory is the sumo-wrestling collection: figurines, posters, a belt and other tokens of that martial art for light-footed behemoths. To explain his passion for sumo, Chirac once cited a description of the sport as less about contact than contemplating the adversary: when the big moves finally come, the action is so fast that "victory is achieved before we've had the time to know how." Several of Chirac's political rivals have felt that way over the years. "Maybe if I'd started young, I could have done sumo," the 6-foot-3 French president once mused in an interview with the sports newspaper l'Equipe. "I had the necessary height. And the weight? That can be put on."
In fact, the 72-year-old Chirac has spent most of his career fighting above his weight--and that of France. At home, he would head-fake his opponents, becoming a left-wing right-wing politician, never letting rivals know for sure where he was going, and hoping they'd lunge in the wrong direction. Often they did. To project himself and his middleweight country on the global scene, he picked big adversaries, notably the United States. And he bulked up by claiming to speak for the vast majority of Europeans. Sometimes the technique worked. Even if Chirac's opposition to the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was obstructive, divisive and ultimately ineffective, it marked one of the high points of his popularity at home. Most French citizens still think he represents their country well abroad.
Yet after 40 years in politics and 10 as president, Chirac's footwork has gone flat. The public is weary of his bobbing and weaving, and deeply wary of his promises. A decade ago, for instance, he came to office vowing to cut the unemployment rate, which stood at 11.4 percent. Now it's 10.2 and headed back up. On May 29, when the French will vote in a referendum on the new European constitution, polls show they may well say, "Non!" And while the race remains too close to call, there's no question many of those ballots will be cast as much against the president as the document. A recent poll shows 72 percent of French adults wouldn't want him to run for another term in 2007; 57 percent give his last decade of leadership bad marks.
At Sarran's Musee du President Jacques Chirac, there's a huge, ugly stuffed fish, a coelacanth, "often called a living fossil," according to a nearby plaque. The aging Chirac, with his fixation on the glories of the French past, has come to be seen in much the same light. Gilles Delafon, coauthor of a book on Chirac's relations with the United States, describes him as "the last dinosaur of the Fifth Republic," heir to the conservative, centralizing politics and imperious presidential system put in place by Charles de Gaulle in 1958. And indeed he seems ever more out of touch with his people as they try to cope with the demands of a fast-changing global economy.
Uncertainty about the future runs deep in France. Burning questions go unresolved. How, for instance, should the country integrate, assimilate or even accommodate its large and growing population of Muslim immigrants? How can France reform its educational system so that what students learn prepares them for the gritty combat of the global marketplace? How will older people survive when their pensions finally are cut back because there just isn't enough money to fund them? Where is France really supposed to fit in this new Europe of 25 countries? And where will Europe fit into the world? These fundamental questions about their daily lives and their immediate futures are ones that Chirac hasn't been able to answer convincingly in 10 years.
Last month a public epiphany flashed through France when Chirac tried to answer questions about the referendum posed by a preselected group of French young people. They wanted to hear about jobs, not glory, schools, not grandeur. He looked like he'd been bushwhacked. They said they were afraid. "I have trouble understanding," he replied. For ordinary French, that said it all.
The coterie of family and cronies around Chirac reinforces what's now widely called the "disconnect" between him and society. His aristocratic wife, Bernadette, with her lapdog Sumo has staked out political terrain to the right. (She is also deputy mayor of Sarran, and is responsible for bringing the big museum to the little village.) One of their two daughters, Claude, is Chirac's most trusted adviser on communications. Standing in as a political son is Interior Minister Dominique de Villepin. Chirac is intelligent but no intellectual. Villepin is, and he feeds the president a steady stream of semimystical rhetoric about French history. In a bizarre little manifesto called "The Cry of the Gargoyle," published after Chirac's re-election in 2002, Villepin's messianic tone echoed the Book of Lamentations. "Today orphaned, unsteady, easily disillusioned, France still burns with a desire for history; she has kept intact the flame of a great nation, eager to defend her rank." As Villepin wrote, he and Chirac dream of "a France capable of transcending and astounding the world."
But that's just the problem. There's very little about France today, apart from history, that can pretend at transcendence. What is astounding, in fact, given its great past, is the country's current mediocrity. And pretending otherwise doesn't make it so. On the economic front, France's 2 percent growth may be double the European Union average, but that's not saying much. Remedies for this problem, from a lessening of social costs to greater flexibility in hiring and firing, have been very slow in coming. This government has never been willing or able to push through major pension reforms, and it's not likely to start now with a graying electorate fiercely attached to its security. Meanwhile unemployment among those under 25 is running at more than 23 percent. I have trouble understanding? Indeed.
Between the tedious stagnation of Chirac's France and the tendentious transcendence of his global vision comes Europe. Even ardent advocates of greater unification, vehement supporters of the yes vote on the constitution, don't trust him. Some suspect that Chirac sees "Europe" as a sort of muscle suit he can zip on over the gangly frame of France. They accuse him of calling the referendum, which wasn't required by law, in a badly miscalculated effort to bolster his own popularity, and thereby putting the whole project at risk. "Chirac is like all French Caesars: arrogant," says former Euro-parliamentarian Olivier Duhamel. "He thought he could only win and, any-way, he is not a real European, so it is not a historical disaster for him if he loses."
It would, though, be a disaster for the vision of a unified Europe. If any one of the 25 member states turns it down, the constitution goes back to the drawing boards. And even if the yes votes carry the day in France, the project will have been weakened elsewhere by Chirac's electoral gambit. Indeed, some senior officials in Brussels blanch when they hear him defend the constitution as an extension of French values, French social policy, French glory. As one European commissioner put it, "People in Hungary, Poland and Slovenia are listening to this, too!"
The shame of the matter is that it didn't have to be this way. During the first half of his presidency, Chirac set out to show himself as a real man of action. He flexed French muscle with controversial nuclear tests in the Pacific Ocean. In the Balkans, he pushed President Bill Clinton to intervene militarily, break the Serbian stranglehold on Bosnia and finally end the genocidal war. Chirac "was forcing us to start dealing with the reality," says U.S. envoy Richard Holbrooke. Later he would back the U.S.-led war in Kosovo and the invasion of Afghanistan after September 11. But by the time of his re-election in 2002, Chirac had suffered one humiliating setback after another on the domestic front: strikes, parliamentary defeats, "cohabitation" with a Socialist prime minister, endless allegations of well-documented sleaze dating back to his years as Paris mayor.
The old sumo fighter needed something to distract attention from his failures. He found it in George W. Bush and the war in Iraq. The more the U.S. president pushed to assert a simple vision of the world dominated by American hyperpower, the more Chirac pushed back. Did Bush reject the Kyoto Protocol limiting greenhouse gases? Chirac (the same man who'd ordered nuclear testing in '95) piously told the Johannesburg World Summit in 2002 that "our home is burning while we look elsewhere." Did the Bush administration want to go oust Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein by force of arms? Chirac was against it. And if lesser European leaders dared question his judgment, he dismissed them with gross condescension. They "were not very well brought up," Chirac said.
Two years later, with this critical referendum approaching that has nothing to do with America, and everything to do with the future of France and Europe, the old fighter seems oddly alone in the ring. Chirac's people and France's younger politicians, like former protege Nicolas Sarkozy, are out searching for new visions of the future. The president seems to be squaring off against phantoms. Perhaps he should remember the lesson of the greatest sumo heroes, the yokozuna. They can never be demoted, but they are expected to honor themselves by choosing to retire when they can no longer perform up to grand-champion standards, or carry all the weight that they've put on.
With Tracy McNicoll in Sarran