Reluctance to prosecute Chirac reflects French fear of weakened presidency

Gino Raymond [Professor of Modern French Studies, University of Bristol, U.K.]: "The recommendation that charges against Jacques Chirac be dropped should come as no surprise. In theory, the judge responsible for the final decision, Xavière Simeoni, is not obliged to abide by the finding of the prosecuting authorities, but to do otherwise would be an extraordinary surprise.

In purely pragmatic terms, prosecuting Chirac would lift the lid on a system in which, until very recently, transparency with regard to political funding was an alien concept. It is tacitly acknowledged that all the major parties in France traded favours for funding, whether it was in the form of municipal contracts, local government sinecures, or access to grace and favour apartments at peppercorn rents (or even no rent at all). Very few French politicians who have been in power, or who aspire to power, would want the damage that could be done to the credibility of the system if Chirac were put on trial.

Now that he is out of power, "le bulldozer," as Jacques Chirac was nicknamed because of his unrelenting ambition, is widely regarded as a benign and grandfatherly figure in France. But there are deep cultural reasons that explain the indulgence of the French towards their presidents, especially during the life of the Fifth Republic. When Charles de Gaulle returned to power in 1958, it was very much in the style of a providential leader who, like French providential leaders in the past, had to rescue the nation from a disaster that the other institutions of the state were incapable of managing. In de Gaulle's case in 1958, the crisis was the Algerian war of independence. The fact that de Gaulle had also been the providential leader of the Resistance during World War II strengthened his hand further when he shaped a new constitution that would give the president more power and prestige that any other leader among the world's major democracies.

French presidents continue to be pressed from the Gaullist mould and enjoy the kind of prerogatives that are unique to France. Whether it is lasting rumours about President Valéry Giscard D'Estaing's acceptance of an illicit gift of diamonds from the African tyrant, Jean-Bedel Bokassa, in the 1970s, or the fact that President François Mitterrand effectively raised a second family in the Elysée palace in the 1980s, at the expense of the state, while pursuing his public duties with his official family (also with taxpayers' money), these things never prompted the kind of backlash that would have occurred in other mature democracies. It may be that in the French national psyche, there is a subliminal anxiety about the durability of the Republic's institutions in times of crisis that makes the citizens fearful of bringing down the figure who is the guardian of the nation's eternal interests.

The decision regarding Chirac comes at a time when President Nicolas Sarkozy, the ultimate guarantor of the integrity of the Republic's institutions, is commenting freely to the press on the court case currently underway called "l'Affaire Clearstream," in which the former Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin, is accused of plotting to smear Sarkozy before he became President. The fact that Sarkozy sees no hindrance to his public pronouncements on the case evokes the misgivings that some French political scientists expressed when the role of the president was defined in the constitution of the Fifth Republic, calling it a blueprint for a "monarque républicain," - a republican monarch."

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