In 2007, Jacques Chirac left the Élysée Palace with a declaration to the French nation: “I love you.” He meant it.
Chirac might have been the last true old-world president. He was beloved by his supporters and hated by his opponents in equal measure. You either love or hate Chirac. That’s how it was when he was mayor of Paris, that’s how it was when he was prime minister and that’s how it was in his two terms as president.
Chirac was an inseparable part of my life as a journalist when I was Yediot Achronot’s Paris correspondent. I was part of the presidential press corps, and joined him on many trips. He always had time for a joke, a handshake and always asked after the family. He had a true warmth despite being a political “killer.”
More than once, he managed to fight his way back from political death after being betrayed by another member of his party. He made it to the top and stayed there because of his direct connection to his public. And he did it without social media, but rather through “endless” meetings in every salon and every art exhibit. Every Frenchman or woman felt like they were the most important person in the world when Chirac shook their hands.
There were two occasions on which Chirac moved me particularly, and one on which he made me very angry. In 1995, in one of his first decisions as president, he acknowledged the crimes of the Vichy government (something former President François Mitterrand had refused to do for 14 years). And in 2003, he founded a commission to promote Israeli-French ties outside the scope of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
He made me angry in 1996 when during a visit to Jerusalem, he asked to return to his plane because he thought that Israeli security officials were keeping him from mingling with the Arab crowds who had come to embrace him. Chirac was very pro-Jewish, but also a harsh critic of Israeli policies.
He admired the Jews. I will never forget how Nitzan Horowitz and I, together with a group of reporters, found ourselves in the Élysée Palace as his guests, along with Chabad Rabbi Yossef Pevzner, putting on tefillin and dancing and singing with Chirac.
He believed in the concept of peace for territory, and found it difficult to accept Israeli sovereignty in Judea and Samaria, but was the first to welcome Jewish sovereignty in our world.
Chirac treated Israeli journalists in Paris with respect. In 1993, as I was about to leave for Tehran (the first Israeli journalist to travel there), he invited me to an official dinner with then-Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak. It was an unforgettable evening—Chirac, Mubarak and a young Israeli journalist talking about peace. Later that evening, I told Chirac’s adviser that I was flying to Iran the next day. She hinted that if there were any problems, Chirac would always be happy to help.
An important element in the world of yesterday is gone. It’s no wonder I miss him very much. For him, voters were men and women, not tools.
“I love you,” Chirac said when he left office in 2007. “We love you,” France answered this week.
Boaz Bismuth is editor in chief of Israel Hayom.
This article first appeared in Israel Hayom.