Jacques Chirac has recently been elected to a second term as President of France. Yet few people have as much respect for him as they had for his prestigious predecessors, Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand.
He was born in 1932 in fifth district of Paris, to a wealthy family. In 1956 he married into higher society by taking Bernadette Chodron de Courcelles as his wife. In the meantime, his schooling was preparing him for the role of a leader in politics: He went to the country's best high school, Lycée Louis-le-Grand, then to the prestigious Paris' Institut d'Etudes Politiques, and finally graduated from the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, the infamous ENA where generations of French politicians and CEOs have studied.
Within a few years he entered the political world; in 1962 he worked for the Prime Minister at the time, Georges Pompidou. By 1967 he had been elected deputy to the Assemblée Nationale, and nominated to the cabinet as Secretary of State for Social Affairs; in May 1968 he negotiated with the trade unions, ending the month of labour strikes. He says he went to the negotiations with a gun in his pocket, just in case there would actually be a revolution... When Pompidou became President, Chirac was nominated to more important positions, first in charge of agricultural issues, then of the very important Ministère de l'Intérieur.
After the death of Pompidou in 1974, Chirac betrayed the Gaullist party candidate, Jacques Chaban-Delmas, for the center-right candidate Valery Giscard d'Estaing. As a reward, he got the position of Prime Minister; yet he couldn't really get along with the new President, and quit in 1976. He conquered the newly-created Council of Paris, becoming mayor in 1977; was elected to the European Parliament in 1979, on an anti-European platform; and in 1981 was a candidate in the Presidential Elections, causing such troubles in the right-wing parties as to cause Giscard's defeat by the Socialist party candidate François Mitterrand.
In 1986 the left lost the majority in the Assemblée Nationale, and François Mitterrand nominated Chirac as Prime Minister. He had campaigned on a nearly Reaganomics platform, much more conservative than what was usual for the gaullist candidate, yet the two years of ensuing cohabitation were pretty difficult for Chirac. Much more cunning as a politician, Mitterrand had caused the rise of the far right Front National, and painted Chirac as a pretty far to the right politician too. In the following presidential election, the socialist candidate won by the wide margin of 10 per cent.
For the next four years, Chirac kept a low profile, but in 1992 he who had previously been staunchly anti-European campaigned for a yes vote in the referendum over the Maastricht treaty. In 1993 the left lost the elections again, but Chirac let Edouard Balladur become Prime Minister for the following cohabitation; he came back in 1995, winning the Presidency thanks to a narrow victory in the first round over Balladur. This time he had campaigned on a pretty liberal platform that won him the youth vote - a youth that apparently barely knew of Chirac's past. In the second round he easily beat Lionel Jospin.
In the next two years he angered the whole world by ordering nuclear tests in the Pacific, and in France the reforms of his arrogant Prime Minister Alain Juppé launched a one-month long national strike in November '95. Yet by 1997 he felt confident enough in his popularity to call elections for the Assemblée Nationale, thinking he would win them; something unusual in France, unlike in the UK. He was wrong, and the right lost those elections.
He was forced into a five-year cohabitation with Lionel Jospin as Prime Minister during which he couldn't do much politically, apart from travelling around France and the world. Also during that time a few scandals from his past reappeared, from the way he had financed his party as Mayor of Paris, to the fact that during those days he is supposed to have eaten about 1000 euros worth of vegetables a day, paid by the citizens of the capital... At least that is what the (cooked?) accounting books say. However the Conseil Constitutionnel has stated he could only be prosecuted in front of the Haute Cour, i.e. the Assemblée Nationale, which is not willing to "impeach" him.
In 2002 he was elected to a second term, though the story is best told in other nodes... He is now a president with nearly absolute power, commanding a majority in both the Assemblée and the Sénat; yet in four presidential elections, he never got more than one fifth of the votes in the first round.
The main characteristic of Chirac seems to be his ability to change his mind. In his youth he was selling l'Humanité, the Communist Party daily, yet his career was made in the conservative ranks of French politics. He has alternatively been on the left and on the right of those ranks. Affairs seem not to touch him. He has never really been good at governing, yet winning elections is his specialty.
As a person, Chirac is a fan of Japan, regularly going there to watch some sumo; he is also lobbying for the creation of a museum of African Arts in Paris. He has been able to maintain an image of someone close to the people, despite the technocratic aspects of his ENA education.
Oh, and on Bastille Day 2002, a guy who thinks Jean-Marie Le Pen is not enough of an extremist attempted to shoot Chirac. He missed by a lot. The President didn't even notice the bullet whizzing past him...