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ORIGINAL FRENCH ARTICLE: Mémoire et histoire : un personnage à multiples facettes

by José Fort

No Tampering with History: Chirac’s Multi-faceted Personality

Translated Tuesday 27 March 2007, by Isabelle Métral

The French president’s clear statements on dark memorial issues have repeatedly confounded friends and foes alike.
Jacques Chirac will be remembered as the president who recognized the responsibility of the collaborationist Vichy government during Nazi Occupation.

General de Gaulle maintained that France could not be held responsible for the policies of the Vichy regime during the Occupation; François Mitterrand likewise stubbornly opposed acknowledging France’s responsibility despite urgent encouragement from several of his closest friends. Jacques Chirac took the bold step: on July 16th, 1995, shortly after being elected president, he made a public statement to that effect on the very site of Paris’s indoor velodrome or Vél’ d’Hiv’(1): "there is no denying that the occupying forces’ murderous frenzy was abetted by the French State and a number of French people," he declared. "We owe it to ourselves, being committed to the cause of human freedom and dignity, to be clear about those sombre moments in our history. This is way can we fight against those dark, ever-threatening forces."

Two years later, while inaugurating the "clearing of the Righteous" in Thonon-les-Bains - a monument to French people who protected Jews at the risk of their own lives or careers against Nazi persecution- Chirac drove the point home again, saying that "in actual fact, the Vichy government was an accomplice of the Nazis, and a zealous one at times."

Another occasion arose in 2005, following the passing of a law in February, one paragraph of which stipulated that curricula henceforth acknowledge the positive role of "the French Republic’s presence" overseas, especially in North Africa, and highlight the historical contribution of native soldiers enlisted in the French army, as a tribute to their sacrifice. Understandably this paragraph caused a furore in France, especially in the overseas départements and territories (DOM-TOM), as well as in Algeria. "Is the day near when we shall beg forgiveness for being French?" Sarkozy the home secretary snorted on finding himself obliged to cancel a visit to the French West Indies. The Algerian-French reconciliation treaty ("traité d’amitié") under study was shelved (it has made no progress since.)

Confronted with widespread opposition to the divisive provision - which was meant to restore to favour "France’s civilising achievement" in its former colonies - Jacques Chirac took it upon himself in his capacity as president to repeal the article that mentioned the positive role of colonisation. Naturally, this brought down upon him the venomous wrath of his own majority and all those who look back nostalgically to the days of "l’Algérie française."

Indeed Chirac has always underplayed the risk inherent in associating or compromising himself with politicians from the most radical fringe of the French right, whose line of ancestors includes for instance Pétain’s collaborationists and Algérie française putschists - all of whom have always wallowed and thrived in backwaters at the worst times in French history.

Jacques Chirac also insisted on making the most of the ceremonies marking the 150th anniversary of the abolition of slavery, which he called "barbarous", and took the opportunity to voice his hope that France will always "take the lead" in the fight for "human freedom and dignity." Just before that occasion, he had declined King Juan Carlos of Spain’s invitation to celebrate "the discovery of the New World," saying he was not favourably impressed by "the hordes that came to America to wreak destruction."

There is more than one facet to this unpredictable man.

(1) On February 16 and 17, 1942, 13,152 Jews, including 4,115 children, were rounded up on this site by 4,500 French policemen and subsequently transported.

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