Monday, March 7, 2011
In a small village lost in the wooded hills of Corréze in South-west France, there is a building that looks like a cross between a battery chicken farm and a provincial airport terminal. The building complex contains 15,000 objects of epic eclecticism. They include: a 5ft-long, stuffed, prehistoric fish; a pair of unworn blue cowboy-boots; a porcelain model of a sumo wrestler standing on one foot; a plastic cow; a New York Fire Department helmet; a chess set in which all four bishops are Desmond Tutu ; and a Winston Churchill pen and cigar set (presented by the grateful people of Britain).
The building houses the Musée du Président Jacques Chirac, a tribute to his 12 years as president of France (1995 to 2007) and the permanent resting place for the tons of ceremonial bric-a-brac that he received while in office.
This institution – one of the weirdest and least commercially successful museums in the world – is a perfect monument to the Chirac era. It attempts a bit of everything and it finally takes you nowhere very much.
The museum may also be emblematic of Mr Chirac's career in another way. It relies heavily on subsidies from the taxpayer.
Over the next three weeks, a court in Paris is due to hear evidence that the whole of Mr Chirac's career was subsidised – illegally – by the taxpayers, not of Corrèze (his provincial fiefdom) but of Paris (his political power base). There is a possibility that the trial will be postponed. A last-minute constitutional objection may have to be referred to higher authority.
Only two previous former French heads of state have been placed on trial, Louis XVI in 1792 and Field Marshall Phillippe Pétain in 1945. Beside the charges faced by his predecessors – "treachery against the people" and "treason" – the accusations against Mr Chirac may appear trivial. He is accused of embezzling, while mayor of Paris between 1977 and 1995, about €2m in Parisian taxpayers' money to fund his political party and to give sweeteners to his friends and public figures, including Charles de Gaulle's grandson. This will be a trial with no prosecution and, in a sense, no victim. The public prosecution service concluded last year that Mr Chirac had no case to answer. The main victim, the city of Paris, has withdrawn its complaint after being reimbursed by Mr Chirac's friends and Nicolas Sarkozy's centre-right party.
Even if convicted - far from certain - Mr Chirac will probably get no more than a fine and a suspended sentence. At 78, he is, his friends and wife point out, an infirm old man who does not always recognise his friends and is given to uncharacteristic bursts of bad temper. They ask why he is being tried at all.
The former president is on trial because two sets of independent examining magistrates, who had painstakingly investigated two separate sets of corruption allegations against him, overruled the state prosecutor. They insisted the public interest demanded a trial because the accusations against Mr Chirac pointed to a prolonged and shameless conspiracy to pillage public funds over nearly two decades. As mayor of Paris, they argued, he created and ran a complex system of "embezzlement" to "increase his influence" and finance his rise to power.
In one respect, the museum is not emblematic of Mr Chirac's life and career. Since he was succeeded by his estranged former protégé, Mr Sarkozy, in 2007, visits to the Chirac museum have slumped.
Despite this month's trial, Mr Chirac has never been so popular. Recent polls have made him the most-liked political figure in France, with over 70 per cent approval ratings – much higher than anything that he achieved while in office.
When Mr Chirac attended the annual agricultural show in Paris last month – a rare public outing for him these days – he was mobbed by admirers for 20 minutes. Mr Chirac's popularity is partly a mirror image of Mr Sarkozy's unpopularity. Mr Sarkozy came to power promising to be a kind of "anti-Chirac": more purposeful, more hands-on, more consistent, less hostile to American influence. After nearly four years of Mr Sarkozy's vainglorious and frenetic leadership, many French people – including, bizarrely, many on the left – now look back at Mr Chirac as a rascally, wise and reassuring uncle who did not achieve much but at least had the good sense to oppose the Iraq war in 2003.
But there's also another Mr Chirac: a cynical, calculating and, when occasion demanded, brutal politician. This was the man who: back-stabbed his way to leadership of the Gaullist movement in the 1970s; betrayed President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing in 1981; was, successively, a virulent Euro-sceptic and then a flag-waving European; and artfully dispatched all centre-right rivals, until Mr Sarkozy came along. Over the next four weeks, with no help from the state prosecutor, the trial judge, Dominique Pauthe, must decide whether Mr Chirac was also a spider at the centre of a complex web of embezzlement of public funds. The ex-president will not attend. If the trial goes ahead, Mr Chirac will be present from tomorrow until 3 April, in the same courtroom in the Palais de Justice in Paris, which also witnessed the trial of Queen Marie Antoinette in 1793.
Mr Chirac does not risk the guillotine. All the same, his wife has told friends that she is worried.
Bernadette Chirac, who is still a local councillor in Correze, was a main mover in the creation of the Chirac museum in Sarran as a monument to his elusive legacy. She is said to be fearful that – whether her husband is convicted or not – his legacy will be forever tainted by the odour of corruption.
Here are photos of the usual suspects who blog here not that they should go to the guillotine. But we still haven't figured out that strange affliction to Dan's ears.
Cara - Tuesday on the book road