- The Washington Times - Monday, November 16, 2009

When he was in office, Jacques Chirac was among the least popular French heads of state, with an approval rating as low as 32 percent.

Now his successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, who has just passed the midway mark of his five-year term, is in the doghouse at 39 percent approval while Mr. Chirac enjoys movie-star-like popularity.

According to a recent poll conducted by the French agency BVA, the 76-year-old former statesman has the approval of 60 percent, despite the fact that he faces corruption charges for misuse of public funds prior to his presidency.

He is, according to the poll, the fourth most popular French leader after Charles de Gaulle, Georges Pompidou and Francois Mitterrand.

Gael Sliman, vice chief executive of BVA, said Mr. Chirac’s popularity was in part a function of dissatisfaction with Mr. Sarkozy.

Mr. Sliman cited three moments during his presidency when Mr. Chirac’s approval ratings soared: in 1998, when France won the football World Cup; after his re-election in 2002; and when France opposed the war in Iraq in 2003.

In 2002, Mr. Chirac was re-elected in a runoff in an 82 percent landslide over extreme right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen.

“[Mr. Chirac] embodied the fight against the extreme right devil and people thought he could gather the country around his person,”Mr. Sliman said. His approval rate during those key moments came close to 70 percent.

To Roland Cayrol, research director for French politics at Sciences Po, a leading school in Paris for graduate and undergraduate education, Mr. Chirac’s revived popularity arises from the fact that there is still a certain kind of respect for former presidents in France.

“People like Chirac, his character,” said Mr. Cayrol, a former director of the polling agency CSA.

However, most French say Mr. Chirac did not leave much in the way of results and reforms after 12 years in office.

“The French have never been able to say what can be remembered of Chirac’s presidency. When he was in office, the unemployment rate was the main reason for his unpopularity,” Mr. Cayrol said. “The only thing that made him popular was his standing up against the war in Iraq, a gesture that was probably the last sign of France’s independence in terms of foreign policy. Other than that, they don’t remember anything more.”

Despite Mr. Chirac’s overall popularity, the BVA poll also indicated that 71 percent of French people hold a negative opinion of Mr. Chirac concerning unemployment.

The former president’s legal woes apparently have little to do with his popularity.

He is accused of using public funds to pay 21 aides who worked on his political campaigns, when he was mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995. His trial is likely to take place next year and he could face up to 10 years in prison.

Seventy-two percent of the French think he should be brought to justice like anyone else, according to another BVA poll Nov. 1.

Mr. Chirac has just published the first volume of his autobiography, “Chaque pas doit etre un but” (“every step must be a goal”), in which he describes the beginning of his political career through his first election as president. According to several bookstores, the book is selling well.

“It is the biggest print run of the year for its publishing house,” said a saleswoman at Gibert Joseph, one of the biggest bookstores in the western French town of Poitiers. “People are always interested in the memoirs of a statesman.”

On Saturday Mr. Chirac was the featured attraction at a book fair in his rural home of Correze, where he was elected for the first time as national assemblyman in 1967 and remains beloved. Hundreds of people waited in line and chanted his name as he signed his book and shook hands for several hours.

This is the sort of thing that Mr. Sarkozy is not comfortable doing.

“When people think about Chirac and yesterday, they think about Sarkozy and today,” Mr. Sliman said.

“Another factor to explain why he is so popular is that events of lesser importance, anecdotes, are sometimes what people remember most of a president. Iraq, his foreign policy, will be remembered more than his overall lack of reforms,” he said.

Lucienne, a local who attended the book fair and asked only to be identified by her first name, was asked what she remembers about Mr. Chirac.

“He opposed the war in Iraq and built expressways in Correze,” she said.

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