Jacques Chirac: Ambition and Flair

With the death of Jacques Chirac in September 2019, a light goes out on a chapter of French political history and on one of Sciences Po’s most illustrious alumni. During his three years at the Institut d’études politiques, from 1951 to 1954, France’s former president would take his first strides into the dazzling career that was to follow.

This article was originally published in September 2019.

The young Jacques Chirac finished high school in 1950, graduating with good but not brilliant grades. He promptly decided to follow a more adventurous whim, embarking on a three-month escapade onboard a coal freighter ship. Upon his return to dry land, the seafarer was greeted by his father, Abel Chirac, who had only one thing to say: it’s university or nothing! He pushed his son to enrol in a scientific course at prestigious institution, Lycée Louis-le-Grand. Only a year later, the rebellious spirit that would lead Chirac to victory in two consecutive presidential elections proved itself stronger than any paternal pressure: he turned his back on mathematics and entered the Public Service stream at Sciences Po.

As soon as he passed through the doors of 27 rue Saint-Guillaume, Chirac entered a world that he would inhabit the rest of his life. A world that was new to him and where he didn’t quite fit in. “He didn’t have the same credentials, the same background, or the same life experience as the people he met that day. It was a bit like putting a lynx in a pen with some Turkish Angora cats…”, remembers former classmate Béatrice de Andia, quoted by Arnaud Ardoin in his book on Chirac, President, la nuit vient de tomber (President, Night Has Just Fallen).  

To the mind of his fellow students, Chirac was likeable, charismatic, even a little seductive… His professors called him a good speaker, bright, and full of potential.

“No ordinary person”

Early on, Chirac was attracted by the US, which he travelled with two classmates while attending summer school at Harvard. He would get to know the country even better over the course of a year out from his studies. But these American aspirations might well never have come to fruition: Chirac’s visa request came close to being rejected due to his brief stint campaigning for the French Communist Party and, more importantly, his signing of the Soviet-inspired Stockholm Appeal in 1950.

Chirac returned to France to graduate in 1954. He finished his course with a dissertation in economic geography, entitled “The Development of the Port of New Orleans” and supervised by Professor Jean Chardonnet. Of the 139 students in his class at Sciences Po, Chirac placed third.

Now an ambitious young man, the budding politician wasted no time: in autumn of the same year, Chirac was accepted into the École nationale d’administration, France’s leading institution for public service training. This certainly won the admiration of his young fiancée, Bernadette Chodron de Courcel, whom Chirac had encountered in the lecture halls of Sciences Po. “He was such an exceptional boy!”, she told Émile, Sciences Po’s alumni magazine (FR). “I’m not talking about his first year, when he was kicking his heels under the desk, but the fact that he managed to get admitted to the ENA straight after Sciences Po, without any preparation year. That’s when I said to myself: this is no ordinary person.

A Taste for Leadership

If America was the common theme of his student years, it also brought Chirac to the attention of his soon-to-be wife. “Jacques Chirac was always crafty, absolutely no shame! Shortly after we first met in a lecture at Sciences Po, I was in the library taking notes on Democracy in America by Tocqueville. This boy, that I didn’t know, comes up to me. I’m looking at his shoes, thinking ‘who is this guy?’. He says to me, ‘Mademoiselle, I see that you’re reading Democracy in America, where are you up to?’. I replied ‘I’m just getting to the end. I’ve been analysing the book as I was asked to.’ He asks, ‘When you’ve finished,  do you think you could pass me your notes?”. I was silly enough to lend them to him – that’s how you know I was very shy at the time. And what happens? He gets a better grade than me!

It was at Sciences Po too that Chirac discovered his taste and his talent for leadership. “He led little work groups, surrounded by lots of other young people. They were all very bright and would discuss various subjects. Things began to orient themselves around him”, recounts Philippe Goulliaud, quoted in an article for Le Figaro Étudiant on the 26 September (FR).

Once enrolled at the ENA, the future head of state set to work on kickstarting the glittering career for which he is known. Spurred on by his ambition, Chirac would climb to the highest ranks of the French administration, right up until his double term as leader of the Republic.

While working as a junior auditor at the French Court of Audit in the 1960s, Chirac was recruited as a lecturer and returned to Sciences Po to teach. From then on, whenever he found himself revisiting the rue Saint-Guillaume, he would never to fail to stop and say an affectionate hello to the university’s administrative staff. So many anecdotes live on in Sciences Po’s corridors and collective memory: the mark of one ambitious student who became an icon of French politics.

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