Yesterday evening (Australian time), Nicolas Sarkozy officially took office as the new president of France following his election victory earlier this month.

No matter how many times you’ve seen it, there is always something moving about the transfer of power in a democracy. In Australia we don’t get the full spectacle, because our head of state is unelected, but the French know how to do symbolism. The handover from Jacques Chirac to Sarkozy was a simple but highly effective ceremony.

After several failed attempts, France seems to have finally got a constitution that works well: the fifth republic, which will celebrate its 50th anniversary next year. However, Reuters’ comment that the president “wields more powers than any other elected Western leader” is strange, since a French president is much less powerful than his American counterpart (perhaps they meant to say “directly elected”).

The departure of Chirac marks a real generational change in France.

Although on the same side politically, he and Sarkozy have had a difficult relationship over the years, but on this occasion they evidently preferred to remember the good times rather than the bad, and the warmth between them seemed genuine.

Chirac’s domestic record is not well regarded, and his approval ratings in the last two years have ranged from poor to abysmal. Originally seen as something of a radical, he drifted to the centre over time (it remains to be seen if Sarkozy will do the same). An economic reform program in his first term was defeated by public sector strikes, and a subsequent snap election backfired when the Socialists won control of parliament.

Internationally, assessments of Chirac are more polarised. The defining moment was the Iraq war, when he was alone among major centre-right leaders in opposing the US-led invasion. For supporters of the war, he represented the worst of French faint-heartedness and even treachery; for its opponents, he was the champion of international law and common sense.

Few people are willing to die in the trenches for economic policy.

Chirac was domestically unpopular but rarely seemed hated, and his failures will be quickly forgotten. But Iraq has poisoned the international atmosphere in a way that is likely to outlast him.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey

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