As 2005 nears its end (what? already? Wasn’t New Year last week?) it is time to take a look at one of the strangest series of accidents in international politics. To make a long story short: We have a winner – or loser – in the competition for the 2005 Spontaneous Political Combustion Awards.But just as a reminder – let’s begin with a list of the also-rans and the runners up:The Also-RansSome politicians made valiant efforts during 2005 but failed in delivering the truly surprising goof. Worth mentioning are:
- Louise Frevert. Was always a loose cannon first in the Conservative Party and now in the Danish People’s Party and her handling of the anti-Islamic rants posted on her homepage really wasn’t a surprise. But it was highly entertaining.
- Henriette Kjær. Former Conservative Minister of Consumer Protection who will be happy to tell you why you should always check your bank account before you buy new furniture. And no: It’s not paranoia if they are out to get you.
- Eva Kjer-Hansen. Liberal Minister of Social Affairs who happened to voice Liberal opinions on two occasions. The Liberal Prime Minister thought that was a really bad idea and forced her to swallow her own words in a really, really humiliating way.
- Laila Freivalds. Swedish Foreign Minister who performed a memorable goof back in 2000 when she bought her own appartment. The deal was perfectly legal but politically inconvenient and after an acrimonious brawl with a bunch of journalists outside her home, Prime Minister Göran Persson sacked her. She returned as Foreign Minister after the murder of Anna Lindh in 2003, only to become the punchbag of Swedish media.
- Tom DeLay. Controversial Republican Congressman who provided us with the mugshot of the year. Need I say more?
- Frank Jensen. The man who tried to be elected chairman of the Danish Social Democrats by threatening to leave politics if he lost the vote. He lost the vote.
- The entire Swedish left. Seems to have vanished without a trace. Please contact the nearest newsdesk if you have any information about its whereabouts.
- The German Social Democrats. This party changes its leadership as often as other people change their underwear. Maybe an East German chairman will do the trick.
- The German Christian Democrats. An East German chairman did the trick. Almost. Party grandees will do their best to undermine the leadership.
- Tony Blair. British Prime Minister. Was the darling of the chattering classes during the 1990s. Is the darling of George W. Bush today. Lost the general election in spectacular fashion but retained government power thanks to the quirks of the first-past-the-post system. And no: I don’t think that Gordon Brown will succeed Blair as British PM.
But The Winner (Loser) Is:Jacques Chirac probably can’t wait to see the end of 2005 which can only be described a miserable year for the French president in political and personal terms.Chirac is one of the veterans of the French 5th Republic and his political career began in the 1960s when he was a protegé of the later president Géorges Pompidou. He quickly earned himself the nickname “le Bulldozer” for his no-nonsense approach to political negotiations and he also held a number of high offices since the 1970s.His two terms as French PM between 1974 and 1976 and again between 1986 and 1988 as well as his long term as Mayor of Paris from 1976 to 1995 are especially noteworthy: As PM, he twice found himself engaged in an uneasy cohabitation as the junior partner of the imcumbent president, while a series of economic scandals from his time in Paris continue to haunt him.Still, Chirac’s terms as French president have been less than happy. He finally succeeded in winning the presidency in 1995 after defeating first his own creation Édouard Balladur who had turned against him and then the lugubrious Socialist Lionel Jospin, only to see Jospin reappear as winner of the 1997 general elections.The 2002 presidential elections showed that Chirac’s grip on the French electorate was still insecure. Paradoxically, it was a group of French left-wingers and disgruntled Socialist voters who secured Chirac’s reelection by leaving Lionel Jospin in third spot after Chirac and Jean-Marie le Pen of the Front National. We shall never know what might had happened in a run-off election between Chirac and Jospin – in the end le Pen lost to Chirac by 18% to 82% but that result says more about the limits of the far right’s appeal than about support for Chirac.2005: l’Année le Plus HorribleThe point of this History of Jacques Chirac is that Chirac’s presidency rests on an insecure basis. Chirac is intelligent enough to know this and it may explain some of his actions during 2005.Chirac’s first big problem was what to do with the proposal for a European Constitution. Theoretically he could have presented the treaty for ratification in the French parliament and that would have ended the matter – at least until European leaders had to decide what to do about the Dutch.On the other hand, the British PM Tony Blair in early 2004 had announced a British referendum on the treaty – a step that would remove the issue from the campaign for the general elections but also a step that was likely to lead to a defeat of the proposed treaty. Calling a French referendum could be seen as a way for Chirac to enhance his negotiating position vis-a-vis the British government after the expected defeat in the British referendum just as Chirac’s predecessor François Mitterand had done in 1992 after the defeat of the Maastricht treaty in the Danish referendum.Provided Chirac was able to mobilise his own majority, that is. And despite some help from the French Socialist Party in the campaign, Chirac not only suffered a defeat in the French referendum: Chirac never really managed to organise a convincing campaign, his own interventions proved disastrous and in the end the treaty was defeated by a clear majority of 55% to 45%.That left the 72-year old Chirac reeling but he had two more disasters waiting for him. In September he was hit by what in official language was called “a small vascular incident affecting his eyesight”. Less diplomatic sources used the term “minor stroke” and French voters were reminded about former presidents Pompidou (who died of cancer while in office) and Mitterand (who was visibly ill with cancer and had difficulties performing his duties during the later years of his presidency and died only few months after leaving office). Yet another infirm president is not what France needs most in its present state.Just as a reminder of the insecure position of the French government riots broke out in a number of suburbs in Paris in late October and the French government scrambled to find an adequate response to the problems much to the delight of conservative commentators in the U.S.That the French electorate isn’t happy, either, was proved by an opinion poll where only 1% (one per cent) wanted Chirac to run for a third term as president in 2007.The problem is that French politics are more or less stalled for the next year-and-a-half with an ageing, unpopular president in office and deep divisions within both the left and the right side of politics while internal and external problems accumulate.So maybe Chirac’s implosion is in fact a symbol of a French malaise rather than a case of Spontaneous Political Combustion?