Call it Chirac's Revenge. Less than two years after he left office with nearly record low approval ratings, former French President Jacques Chirac finds himself atop polls again as the nation's most popular politician. Better still, Chirac can now boast about getting plaudits from President Barack Obama, whose recent private letter to Chirac parts of which were published in the French press has been widely interpreted in France as recognition for the former French leader's stance on the Iraq war.
The renewed approbation must seem refreshing to the 77-year-old ex-president, who has spent the past 23 months watching his successor and long-time conservative foe Nicolas Sarkozy market himself as the anti-Chirac. In the latest IPSOS/ParisMatch poll of national politicians, Chirac finished first with a 74% support rating, while recession-hit Sarkozy came in 29th with just 47%. Other recent surveys show 60% of French people condemn the government's handling of the economy. (See pictures of Bastille Day celebrations.)
It would be unwise to put much stock in the shifts in polls less than two years into a five-year, reform-focused term especially when you add in a nightmarish global recession few people expected. Still, Chirac must secretly be enjoying the moment. After his own 12 year presidency limped to an end with approval ratings at times dipping below the 20% mark, Chirac was left to watch his one-time protégé-turned-rival take over the Elysée and thrill a mesmerized French public. Where Chirac's leadership was criticized as plodding, unfocused, and ready to sacrifice reform at the first sign of opposition, Sarkozy's has been cheered as relentless, results-driven, and full of the promise of long overdue change.
Abroad, Sarkozy upended Chirac's policies by trading in the traditional Franco-German partnership for closer ties to London. He also reached out to the internationally loathed and isolated George W. Bush, adopting the role of an adoring and trustworthy French friend. Sarkozy's group-hug address to the U.S. Congress in November 2007 was nothing short of a smash, as he waved off Chirac-era disputes over Iraq for references to America's sacrifice in World War II to promise "whenever an American soldier falls somewhere in the world, I think of what the American army did for France".
How irritating it must have been for Sarkozy to read French press reports last month that revealed Bush's successor Obama had written a private letter to Chirac ahead of the London G-20 summit. In it, Obama tells Chirac he anticipates their chances to "collaborate together in a spirit of peace and friendship in order to build a safer world." Most French pundits interpret the letter as Obama giving Chirac credit for correctly opposing the Iraq war as a looming strategic and diplomatic calamity a position Obama shared. According to French press reports, Sarkozy was livid at seeing the star of world politics reach out to his longtime foe. (See pictures of Obama's travels in Europe.)
Now comes Chirac's poll triumph. Little wonder Sarkozy-backers are feeling catty. Culture Minister Christine Albanel sought to explain away Chirac's rising poll numbers and Sarkozy's dropping appeal by saying that the former president "was always very likeable, and today is rather a grandfather figure for everyone". Conservative senator Philippe Marini, meanwhile, noted that "people are always looking back to paradise lost, even if it never was paradise." Hissss.