Chirac Takes Office as President of France Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The election of Jacques Chirac as president of France brought about a significant change in the political climate in that country. The office of president was once again occupied by an adherent of the French right wing after the fourteen year (1981-1995) presidency of the left-wing Socialist François Mitterrand.

Summary of Event

In 1958, General Charles de Gaulle returned to political power in France because of the crisis caused by the Algerian War of Independence (1954-1962). As a result of his influence, France adopted a new constitution. The French Fourth Republic (1946-1958) ended, and the Fifth Republic was born. De Gaulle inspired many young Frenchmen of the time to seek careers in civil service and politics. Jacques Chirac was among them. Elections;France Presidency, France France;government [kw]Chirac Takes Office as President of France (May 17, 1995) [kw]President of France, Chirac Takes Office as (May 17, 1995) [kw]France, Chirac Takes Office as President of (May 17, 1995) Elections;France Presidency, France France;government [g]Europe;May 17, 1995: Chirac Takes Office as President of France[09200] [g]France;May 17, 1995: Chirac Takes Office as President of France[09200] [c]Government and politics;May 17, 1995: Chirac Takes Office as President of France[09200] Chirac, Jacques Gaulle, Charles de Mitterrand, François Balladur, Édouard Jospin, Lionel

In 1957, Chirac gained admission to the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA), the French college from which all of France’s high-level civil servants graduate. Chirac completed his studies and received his degree in 1959. He was immediately employed in the civil service, and by April, 1962, Prime Minister Georges Pompidou Pompidou, Georges appointed him head of his personal staff. Pompidou was impressed with Chirac’s no-nonsense, straight-to-the-point approach to getting things done and took a special interest in his political career. At his suggestion, in 1967 Chirac ran for and won a seat in the National Assembly as a Gaullist candidate. In May, 1968, he played an instrumental role in bringing student and worker strikes to an end.

Chirac’s political career continued to develop favorably. He held several positions as minister during Pompidou’s presidency, including minister of agriculture and rural development and minister of the interior. In these posts, Chirac began to establish a popularity with the French farmers, opposing policies of the European Commission as well as those of the United States and of West Germany, which were detrimental to the farming community in France. He was appointed to the office of prime minister when Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, with whom he had worked in the Ministry of Economy and Finance under Pompidou, became president in 1974.

However, dissatisfied by the lack of authority granted to him, Chirac resigned as prime minister in 1976. He immediately began efforts to acquire the leadership of the political right wing in France as a way to the presidency. In order to achieve this goal, he brought about the formation of the Rally for the Republic Party (RPR), a neo-Gaullist organization. At this time, Giscard d’Estaing decided to re-create the office of mayor of Paris. That office, which dates back to 1789, had been abolished for the second time in 1871.

In 1977, Chirac ran for the office of mayor of Paris against Michel d’Ornano, a friend of Giscard d’Estaing. Ironically, this office became the platform from which Chirac was able to build his political power and eventually become president of France. He remained in this position until he was elected to the presidency in 1995. While there remains a certain amount of controversy over Chirac’s performance as mayor, he is credited with creating programs to aid single mothers, the disabled, and the elderly and with encouraging businesses to remain in Paris through an incentives program.

In 1981, Chirac launched his first candidacy for the presidency. His opponent was Giscard d’Estaing, also a candidate from the right, thus splitting the vote. Chirac received only 18 percent of the vote in the first round. In the second round, he threw his support behind Giscard d’Estaing but did not instruct his RPR party members to vote for his fellow right-wing candidate. Giscard d’Estaing lost the election to the Socialist François Mitterrand. This loss eliminated Giscard d’Estaing as a significant figure in the French political right wing and left the way clear for Chirac, who still held his politically significant office as mayor of Paris, to assume leadership of the Right.

Jacques Chirac (right) in 1999 with U.S. president Bill Clinton.

(NARA/David Scull)

In 1986, the candidates representing a right-wing coalition of Chirac’s RPR party and of Giscard d’Estaing’s Union for French Democracy (UDF) party gained a slight majority in the National Assembly. Political parties;France This situation forced the government into “cohabitation,” a situation in which the president appoints a prime minister from outside his own party. The constitution that created the Fifth Republic assured both a powerful executive in the office of president and a strong parliament under the leadership of a prime minister. The president was given the power to appoint the prime minister, but the legislative branch, the National Assembly, was given the power of approval of the appointment. Prime ministers;France Presidential elections were set at every seven years, while the elections of the members of the National Assembly were to occur every five years. This formula of elections could and did result in a president facing a National Assembly in which his party did not have the majority. In this scenario, a prime minister chosen from his own party was not likely to receive approval. In view of the right-wing majority in the National Assembly, Mitterrand had little choice but to appoint a prime minister from among the leaders of the Right. Thus Chirac became prime minister for a second time.

In 1988, Chirac was once again a candidate for president. He made a good showing in the first round with 20 percent of the vote but was defeated by Mitterrand in the second round. Once again, Chirac resigned from the post of prime minister.

When the 1993 legislative election again resulted in a right-wing majority and placed Mitterrand’s presidency in a situation of cohabitation, Chirac stated that he did not wish to be prime minister again and proposed Édouard Balladur for the office. Chirac intended to be a candidate in the 1995 presidential election and had been assured that Balladur would not run. Encouraged by his popularity as indicated by the polls, Balladur had a change of heart and became a presidential candidate. Chirac severely criticized the political philosophies of Balladur and promised that as president, he would reduce the inequality, particularly economic, that existed among the social classes. This decision created a splinter RPR party and split the RPR vote in the first round of voting. In spite of Balladur’s seeming popularity, Chirac received a greater number of votes in the first round. In the second round, running on a platform of lowering taxes and implementing programs to ease the shortage of employment opportunities, Chirac defeated Lionel Jospin, the Socialist candidate. Chirac received 52.6 percent of the vote. On May 17, 1995, Chirac began his first term as president of France.

Significance

The election of Jacques Chirac as president of France provides insight into how the French political system works, presenting an opportunity to trace the career of a French civil servant from the École Nationale d’Administration to the presidency of France. The election of Chirac represented the return of the French executive branch to France’s conservative, traditional right-wing political party, which traces its roots to Charles de Gaulle and the creation of the Fifth Republic. Elections;France Presidency, France France;government

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ardagh, John. France in the New Century: Portrait of a Changing Society. 1999. Rev. ed. London: Penguin Books, 2001. Broad overview of French culture and society. Chapters on Mitterrand’s and Chirac’s presidencies, privatization, and corruption charges against Chirac.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bell, David S. Presidential Power in Fifth Republic France. New York: Berg, 2000. Includes chapters on De Gaulle’s presidency and on Chirac and his political policies. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">King, Anthony, ed. Leaders’ Personalities and the Outcomes of Democratic Elections. New York: Oxford University Press, 2002. Chapter 4 examines the issue of candidates’ personalities in French elections. Bibliography, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Lewis-Beck, Marshall S. How France Votes. New York: Chatham House, 1999. Compares French voters to American voters and discusses French political views and cohabitation in government. Lists of additional readings, index.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Thody, Philip. The Fifth Republic: Presidents, Politics and Personalities. London: Routledge, 1999. Chapters on each of the presidents of the Fifth Republic. Annotated bibliography, three appendixes (one on the French civil service), index.

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