They came from different political creeds, and different generations, yet I always thought there was something of the Harold Wilson about Jacques Chirac, whose death on 26 September has been massively mourned in France. Wilson lacked Chirac's proven corruptibility, though not for want of people trying to establish otherwise. Chirac lacked Wilson's tiresome paranoia. Wilson was excessively cautious, Chirac impetuous. But they had a lot in common.
Both projected the image of the likeable rogue. Both achieved academic distinction – Wilson at Oxford and Chirac at the École Nationale d’Administration – which they downplayed by cultivating the common touch, never entirely successfully. Wilson affected a passion for HP Sauce; Chirac swilled beer and chomped charcuterie ('How,' Chirac was once heard to remark about the British, 'can you negotiate with a country that cooks so badly?'). They were both populists, in an attractive sense of that word that seems to have become archaic. Both strove, and often failed, to move with the dynamic times over which they presided, and both mistimed elections.
Both were shaped by the experience of war: Wilson as a civil servant provisioning the struggle against Hitler; Chirac as a cavalry reservist who was wounded in Algeria. Both would go on to defy a US President's coercion to join foolish and disgraceful wars: Wilson with Lyndon Johnson and Vietnam; Chirac with George W Bush and Iraq. It made a hero of Chirac in France, but was strangely under-credited to Wilson in Britain.
Both achieved ministerial office young and would bestride their political eras. Both followed early mentors (Aneurin Bevan, Giscard d'Estaing), with whom they later fell out. Both excelled in a political agility that their admirers called pragmatic and their detractors devious, abetted by a usefully slack grip on supposedly unamendable principles and objectives. Both started out on the radical wings of their parties, but gravitated to the centre. Both were defined against long-standing opponents: Heath for Wilson, Mitterand for Chirac. Both were personally kinder than was always good for them, both could be corny, both grew too fond of the trappings of office.
More resonantly for our deranged times, they both came to believe in an ideal of European unity and pushed their countries across significant bridges toward that end. Wilson's referendum in 1975 consigned Brussels-haters to the daftie fringe of British politics, where they would remain until very recently. Chirac persuaded a nation obsessed with national symbolism to abandon the Franc, and absorbed years of criticism for the high interest rates needed to prepare for the Euro. Both pretended, when it suited them, to be more nationalistic than they were. Both became measurably less effective the longer they remained in office.
In Britain, the Commons is pretty much the whole of politics, the more so in the years before devolution. National politics in France has many more rooms at the top, including a vigorous polity out in la France profonde that brooks none of the metrocentric disregard for 'the provinces' found in the UK. A tenacious politician can find successive billets from which to continue to present his or her wares, and thereby remain in the spotlight for decades on end. Chirac's career path exemplifies this. The average tenure of a Whitehall minister is 18 months, after which the scrapheap often beckons. Not so in France.
Another difference is that French politics, though a rough enough game, lacks the personal venom that has so infested UK debate. This is especially true for Presidents, who are heads of state as well as politicians, and whose post-hoc reputations often benefit from the sort of honeyed revision that British popular history accords monarchs but not premiers. Chirac's death generated affectionate coverage, hour after hour, on French TV channels. Emmanuel Macron, who has benefited more than anyone from the collapse of the old party system that sustained Chirac, delivered a glutinous tribute.
The hagiography, a cynic might suspect, may owe something to the observation heard many times in recent days that Chirac was the last President with the bearing to imbue the office with the dignity intended by its creator, De Gaulle. The contrast drawn with his successors was unsubtle. Macron could do with some noblesse by association.
In truth, Chirac's record was, like Wilson's, much more of a mixed bag than the obituaries allowed. He first caught the eye of commentators in the mid-1960s, as assistant to de Gaulle's put-upon Prime Minister, Georges Pompidou. Chirac would ever after market himself as a Gaullist, not always credibly. Pompidou rewarded him in 1967 with a parliamentary seat and junior ministerial job, and on becoming President, steered him swiftly through the ministerial shallows to the sensitive Cabinet post of agriculture minister. Chirac did it well (unlike some of his previous ministerial jobs), forging a bankable friendship with France's carnaptious farmers that flourished until the day he died.
His decisive moment came in 1974, when he unexpectedly spurned the Gaullists' presumptive presidential candidate, Prime Minister Jacques Chaban-Delmas, and threw his support instead to the patrician right-winger Valéry Giscard d'Estaing. Giscard won, and duly rewarded Chirac's audacity by making him Prime Minister. It was the first of two stints at Matignon, the second coming under the socialist François Mitterand. Neither was a happy experience. Between the two, Chirac would put in the best part of two decades as mayor of Paris, and mount two failed bids for the presidency.
Paris only gained a single unitary mayor in 1977 and it is fair to say that Chirac, the first incumbent, defined public expectations of the role. It is also the case that this was not an unmitigated blessing. Persistent allegations of corruption swirled around him and his team, and would dog him for decades, eventually earning him a suspended jail sentence in retirement.
Neither of Chirac's presidential wins testified to the popular adoration proclaimed at his death. In 1995, he squeaked home against the Socialists' Lionel Jospin after a miserable first round showing on just 20%. Seven years later, final victory was decisive but less because of Chirac's promise to end France's fracture sociale than because his run-off opponent was the far right leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen. In office, he had some undoubted highs – leading international opposition to the Iraq war, ending equivocation over France's acquiescence in wartime Jewish deportations, peacemaking in the Balkans – but also many lows: economic reforms crushed by strikes, a botched pre-emptive parliamentary election in 1997 that empowered his opponents, voter rejection of the EU constitution he supported. He left a country arguably more, not less, fractured than he found it.
Enoch Powell famously said that all political careers end in failure. It is true, but the failure is not always acknowledged. Lots went wrong for both Wilson and Chirac, some of it downright culpable. Yet you would be hard-placed to find two statesmen who looked more pleased with themselves at career's end. To bring that off takes not just resilience, but the rarer ability to have met with both triumph and disaster… and treated, if only in retrospect, those two imposters just the same.