Autumn 1969. The future president is France’s budget chief. An emerging political star. The newspapers describe him as one of “Pompidou’s musketeers.” I’ve come to interview him for an investigation I’m doing at Sciences Po on the recent devaluation of the franc. His generosity that day! His availability and ebullience! His way of embracing my topic as if it were his own, coming up with a plan that was a little too academic, too tame—but divided into two parts! “Mind you, man! It’s very important that it have two parts! Because you’re no longer at the Ecole Normale Supérieure, Mr. Lévy!” And in that sensitive face, still almost adolescent, a fleeting but unmistakable trace, yes, of the musketeer, but more of Alexandre Dumas’ Athos than of his d’Artagnan, a wistful, secretive Athos behind dashing d’Artagnan’s mask.
Ten years later. He is now a member of the European parliament. We’re side by side, squeezed in, his legs, like mine, jammed against the seatbacks on an Air Inter plane from Strasbourg that is stacked up over Orly. Which gives us time for a conversation. About the leftism from which I’m emerging; the Gaullism that he’s continuing; his dislike for Raymond Barre, Giscard d’Estaing’s prime minister; Giscard’s love affairs, which fascinate him; whether I knew that Arthur Conan Doyle, creator of Sherlock Holmes, was a cocaine addict. I find my seatmate intensely likeable. I’m shocked to realize that we agree on nearly everything. Upon arrival, because I had felt bound, every three sentences, to accompany my expressions of agreement with a cautious and somewhat silly “despite everything that divides us,” he doubles back from the exit, through which his driver is already carrying his bag, to rejoin me at the baggage carrousel and ask, sheepishly, his awkwardness accentuated by a recently acquired limp, the most simple, ordinary question, but one to which I find I am completely unable to respond: “Tell me, Mr. Lévy, what is it, exactly, that divides us?”
Ten more years go by. He is mayor of Paris. We’re in the Hôtel de Ville, Paris’s city hall, lunching with Jacques Friedmann, Air France’s chairman; François Pinault, the business titan and the mayor’s lifelong friend; and André Lévy, my father, whom the mayor had reconciled with Pinault two years earlier. He is among friends and can be himself: Balzac in his appetite, Stendhal in his taste for happiness, and Malraux in his longing for greatness (I never gave credence to his reputed lack of sophistication!). At one point, however, the conversation turns to Jean-Marie Le Pen, founder of the far-right National Front party. His voice hardens. “Never—do you hear me, never, under any circumstances—will the Gaullists enter into an arrangement with that lot. Why? Because in so doing we would lose everything. Our honor, of course. But also the election.” Now you know: that saying, often attributed to others, came from the mouth of Jacques Chirac.
Another decade, nearly. The site is the Vel’ d’Hiv, the Paris cycling stadium where, in July 1942, over 13,000 Jews were rounded up to be sent off to concentration camps. Newly elected president, Chirac delivers the historic speech that recognizes France’s role in the deportation of Jews. He doesn’t say Vichy, which would have been an attempt to evade responsibility. No, he says France. And, speaking as he does, he knows full well that he is setting off an earthquake in France’s deepest collective consciousness. Why does he do it? Why does he take the risk of breaking not only with the doctrine of outgoing President François Mitterrand, but also with the Gaullist legend of France as a nation of resisters? It has to be very important to him, to make it one of his first speeches, a cornerstone of his term! The key, of course, is courage. A sense of history, which he wants future generations to recognize in him no less than in others. And the conviction (I heard it from his lips) that a people is greater for releasing its ghosts and confronting them.
Same era. Sarajevo. When still mayor, he had received President Alija Izetbegovic of Bosnia at the Hôtel de Ville. In his guest’s presence he lamented the appeasing stance of President Mitterrand and his prime minister. But now it is he who occupies the Elysée Palace. And the image of French soldiers chained to the guardrails of Verbanya bridge by a gang of Serbian thugs arouses in him the spirit of the officer who volunteered for service in Algeria and is still stirred by military ideals. I recounted the story in my war journal, Le Lys et la Cendre (The Lily and the Ash): I am absolutely certain that it was he, not President Bill Clinton, who made the difference by insisting, from that very day: “Enough is enough; the time has come to break with infamy.” Everyone gives him credit, rightly, for rejecting the war in Iraq. Why not also praise him for his role in the just war in Bosnia?
2002. Jacques Chirac is still president. His other lifelong friend, Paul Guilbert, chief political editor for Le Figaro, is dying a slow death. Hardly a day goes by without Chirac checking for news of his friend. At the end, as Guilbert loses the last of his strength, the president continues his conversation, silently now, with the man with whom he has talked and laughed so much. His presence at the funeral in Saint-Germain des Prés is almost anonymous: His sorrowful meditation. His religion of friendship.
January 2002. The previous summer, the president had agreed to meet with Afghan rebel leader Ahmad Shah Massoud, who was to travel to France from Dushanbe in François Pinault’s plane. But Prime Minister Lionel Jospin convinced him to call off the meeting on the grounds that the ruling Taliban might take revenge on French NGOs operating in Kabul. Soon after, Massoud was assassinated, an act that, in retrospect, appears to have been a prelude to September 11. So instead the weary president is meeting with me. His tall frame has grown stouter—Athos, the musketeer, has become another, Porthos. He receives me in his office in the Elysée, where visitors are now few and far between. “What kind of trick did the prime minister play on me?” he wonders out loud. “And where does that leave us? How do you make up for such an affront to the man who embodied enlightened Islam?” Thus was born the idea of sending a writer off on a months-long mission to the Afghanistan that the president loved and wanted France to help rebuild. To have accomplished that, to have served, until the eve of his election to a second term, a man who attached as much value to the revival of a reclining Buddha as to the reconstitution of an Afghan army in disarray, remains one of the proudest achievements of my life.