PARIS — Former French president Jacques Chirac died on September 26 at the age of 86, his family announced on the same day. The cause of the former president’s death was not reported, but it was known that he suffered from Alzheimer’s disease and had been receiving medical treatment.
Chirac promoted diplomacy that avoided dependency on the United States over the decades of his long career. It was said he was inspired by the principles of former President Charles de Gaulle, a prominent French conservative during the postwar period.
Chirac served as president of France from 1995 to 2007, and earlier from 1970 in a variety of other public offices, including mayor of Paris. In 2003, he joined forces with Germany to oppose the United States’ invasion of Iraq.
Love of Japanese Culture
Chirac was a great enthusiast of Japanese culture, and visited Japan more than 40 times in his official capacity and in private.
This passion was reflected in his long involvement with the prestigious Praemium Imperiale cultural awards presented annually by a member of the Japanese imperial family on behalf of the Japan Art Association. Chirac had long served as an international adviser, becoming an honorary adviser after assuming office until his death. The awards are the world’s largest and most prestigious arts prize in the five disciplines of painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and theater/film.
I remember the time the former president came up to me 20 years ago at an international conference and asked, “Are you a Japanese newspaper reporter?” Apparently, I had caught his eye, being a small oriental woman who had slipped into the middle of a Western European press corps. He came down from the stage and walked all the way to my seat in the last row, and then talked about Japanese culture.
His conversation rambled, from his personal collection of Japanese sword tsuba (hand guards) to the history of Dejima in Nagasaki. As I stood there amazed, he extended his hand and said, “Japan is wonderful,” before walking towards the exit.
At that moment, the crowd of French reporters parted to make way for him, as if sending off a king to his palace. He was a warm-hearted man with great presence.
Sumo, Chirac’s Pet Dog
As a sumo wrestling superfan, he had gone so far as to name his pet dog “Sumo.” On a larger scale, though, Chirac successfully organized the Grand Sumo Tournament in Paris in 1986 while he was prime minister, and again in 1995 as president of France.
He created the President of the Republic of France Cup in 2000, which is continued today as the France-Japan Friendship Cup. A French diplomat who was posted to Japan recalled, “During the Grand Sumo Tournaments, I had the arduous task of reporting the banzuke (rankings of sumo wrestlers) and the kimarite (winning techniques) back to France.”
Chirac attracted worldwide attention in 2003 when he fiercely opposed the U.S.-led Iraq war and advocated Gaullism, a traditional French political stance. For his image as a man of unbreakable determination, he had been nicknamed “The Bulldozer.”
However, he struggled when it came to domestic affairs. In 1995, Chirac won the presidential election on his third attempt, but was defeated in the lower house election in 1997 and was forced into a coalition with the Socialist party. He lost his unifying power when the policy to ratify the proposed Constitution of the European Union (EU) was rejected in the 2005 referendum.
In 1995, Chirac received international backlash for ordering nuclear tests to be conducted at Mururoa Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. After his retirement, he received a suspended sentence for a corruption scandal he was involved in when he was mayor.
A Love Affair with France
Despite the occasional scandals, Chirac was loved by the French people — perhaps because he was compassionate and tried to show “the ideal France.”
In 1995, he became the first president to recognize state responsibility over the persecution of Jews during the Nazi occupation of France, declaring that the French police had been following orders. When he was the mayor of Paris in the 1970s, he welcomed Vietnamese refugees at the airport, taking home a young girl he met there to raise as a member of his own family.
In an opinion poll conducted three years ago, 83% of the people answered that they had fond memories of the Chirac administration.
Preferring countryside cooking over refined French cuisine, he had stewed calf’s head as his favorite dish. Every time he visited the rural areas, he would devour local delicacies, like ham and cheese, with his hands. When he visited the Japanese embassy in Paris, it is said that he requested Japanese barbecue and Japanese beer.
As Alzheimer’s progressed in Chirac’s later years, it is reported that he couldn’t recognize his former advisors. Nevertheless, Chirac’s radiant smile will always be remembered by his people.
Author: Mina Mitsui, The Sankei Shimbun Paris Bureau