For many people in France, Jacques Chirac is remembered fondly for his unbridled taste for food, wine and all the good things life has to offer. In Europe though, he leaves a mixed legacy. EURACTIV brings you a non-exhaustive round-up of notorious Chirac quotes and slip-ups.
A fierce defender of the French language, Chirac will be remembered in Brussels chiefly for his failed EU constitution referendum in 2005, and sometimes tense relations with Britain.
Eastern EU countries, for their part, will not forget his broadsides at former communist states for their support to the US-led invasion of Iraq.
But despite provoking diplomatic tensions at times, Chirac’s public outings were also peppered with anecdotes that still make him hugely popular among the French people and the subject of a kind of personality cult.
Here’s a non-exhaustive selection of anecdotes which fellow Europeans won’t forget.
Thatcher: A ‘housewife’
One of Chirac’s first and most notable public outings on Europe came in 1988 when the then 12 countries of the European Economic Community were meeting in Brussels for a European summit to discuss Britain’s demand for a budgetary rebate.
Forgetting his microphone was on, Chirac, who was then Prime Minister, fumed over the British demand for a rebate, saying of Margaret Thatcher:
“What more does this housewife want from me? My balls on a platter?”
The incident reportedly provoked a faint smile from French President François Mitterrand who was standing next to Chirac and had himself once described Thatcher as having “the mouth of Marylin and the eyes of Caligula”.
But the Germans failed to see the humour in the Prime Minister’s slip up and Chancellor Helmut Kohl immediately demanded an apology, which Chirac reluctantly muttered.
Thatcher eventually won the EU rebate battle, and Chirac lost the 1988 election to Mitterrand. But the quote went down in history and even has its own page on Wikipedia (here).
English food: ‘Crap’
Still in relation to Britain, and perhaps less famous, is a little phrase Chirac slipped out a few years later when he eventually became President.
Invited to join the dinner table at the end of a Franco-British summit, the French President told Tony Blair:
“Ah, English food! At first you think it’s crap and then you regret that it’s not.” (The anecdote is reported by Roselyne Bachelot , a former minister, here)
Food was in fact an obsession for Chirac, who said of Britain (again):
“The only thing they ever did for agriculture was the mad cow disease. One cannot trust people who have such bad food. After Finland, it’s the country where food is the worst.”
The comment was made in 2005 at a ceremony with Vladimir Putin and Gerard Schröder to celebrate the 750th anniversary of Kaliningrad. (The anecdote is reported on L’Obs here)
Eastern countries: ‘Shut up’
The Iraq war in 2003 offered the ebullient Chirac an opportunity to let out steam against Poland and other former communist states, which had publicly supported the US invasion in Iraq by signing a joint letter.
In an unusual outburst after an emergency EU summit meeting on Iraq, Chirac derided the letter as “childish” and “dangerous”.
Eastern European countries, Chirac added, had “missed an opportunity to shut up” ahead of their official joining of the European Union, in 2004. “When you are in the family, you have more rights than when you are asking to join and knocking on the door,” he said.
More than ten years after they joined the EU, Chirac’s words still resonate among Eastern EU diplomats. At a 2016 meeting, Slovak ambassador Stanislav Vallo made reference to the famous Chirac sentence saying older EU members shouldn’t “miss the opportunity” to listen to the ‘Visegrad’ countries in the debate over the future of Europe after Brexit.
Language: Walks out of the room when English is spoken
Chirac also earned a reputation for being a staunch defender of the French language, whose influence in Brussels was considerably eroded since the EU’s eastern enlargement.
In 2006, he famously stormed out of a European Council meeting where his compatriot Ernest-Antoine Seillière, then leader of EU business organisation UNICE, dared to address EU heads of states and governments in English.
“I was profoundly shocked to see a Frenchman express himself at the Council table in English,” Chirac explained at a press briefing following the Council. “This is the reason why the French delegation and myself decided to walk out rather than having to listen to this”.
“France has a great respect for its language. It has fought for a very long time to ensure the presence of French, whether at the Olympic Games, at the European Union or the United Nations,” he said.
“This is the national interest but not only, this is in the interest of culture and cultural dialogue. We are not going to found tomorrow’s world on one language and one culture only,” he said referring to the domination of English language. “This would be a dramatic regression”.