How could I forget our first meeting? It was in June 1981, and Mitterrand had just been elected to the Elysée. I was running against Jacques Chirac in the parliamentary elections in his fief of Ussel, in the Corrèze. I was only 27 years old, and he had already been prime minister of France. I challenged him in one of his meetings, from the back of the room. He looked at me with a mixture of condescension and curiosity. We did not know that we would both have a presidential destiny.
Ten years later, we were both members of parliament for the department of Corrèze. He had just lost the presidential election, having been challenged within his own party. To my great surprise, I found him at peace, convinced that his time would come again. He spoke of our home region where life was good. Even as mayor of Paris, he never failed to recall his rural roots, which played an important role in his presidential victory of May 1995.
In 1997, as the first secretary of the Socialist party, I was the leader of the opposition. I didn’t spare him. During a ceremony at the Elysée, Chirac took me to one side and, almost affectionately, said quietly: “You are hard on me, but I did not spare François Mitterrand. I know what has to be done in the political battle, but I appreciate that you respect me, as I always did with my predecessor.”
In 2002, I appealed for people to vote for Chirac to beat Jean-Marie Le Pen. Never before had a victory hurt him so much. He was president, but he knew that he had only been chosen by default.
In January 2005, before the referendum on the European Constitutional treaty, he confided in me. “You convinced the Socialists to vote in favour. I know it was not easy for you. You should know that for the Maastricht treaty, when I supported the ‘yes’, I was booed for the first time by the party I had founded. That day, however, I knew that I would become president because I had chosen the interest of my country over that of my party.”
This is a lesson that does not just apply to France.
During the 12 years he led France, Jacques always had a good word for a friend, a pat on the back for an ordinary citizen, a hug for a child. I saw him more often after he left the Elysée, when I had the opportunity to discover his scholarship and curiosity for the tribal arts, Asian civilisations and Africa. He would talk of America, a country with which he had forged an affectionate bond but not one that allowed him to follow it into the war in Iraq.
After 2012, he looked at political life with a combination of amusement and sadness. I saw him decline physically and slow down, he who had always been a man of action.
Chirac was a fighter; he could be tough with his friends, fierce with his opponents, unwavering in his convictions. What was important to him was that things should move, change; rather than the direction that change took. He had faced confrontation so many times. In the storms he had held firm. He wanted to see out a destiny he had not necessarily imagined for himself, right to the end. He had dreamed of being an officer in the merchant navy before politics took hold of him. He succeeded in becoming president, at the very time when many of his friends had abandoned him. What the young hussar had not been able to conquer, the wise republican had snatched with both hands. He was less interested in power than in its conquest.
Jacques sacrificed much of his personal life to devote himself to others; that is the hardness and greatness of politics. I did not share his ideas or his choices, but we always agreed on what was essential: the rejection of intolerance and respect for human dignity. Jacques was like the French; he embraced their contradictions and moods; he was bold in speech and prudent in his actions, promising more than he could give, but not giving up on the causes that were close to his heart. He had panache. What the British think of as pride, we French consider to be character.
He succeeded in being unpopular when in power and loved as soon as he gave it up, because when the statesman leaves his palace, he becomes a man once again. And in the end, it is the man who is judged.