Former French President Jacques Chirac Dies, but His Legacy Remains

Chirac supported the EU, and the euro as currency

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

France’s former president, Jacques Chirac, has died at 86, BBC News reported Thursday. Chirac was president of France from 1995 until 2007, when he was succeeded by Nicolas Sarkozy. Chirac’s legacy largely centers around the European Union.

European Union flag flying in blue sky
Former French President Jacques Chirac was known for championing the European Union and supporting the Euro as currency. Photo by lazyllama / Shutterstock

According to the BBC article, Jacques Chirac entered the spotlight with his unbending opposition to French involvement in the Iraq War in 2003. “Among his major domestic political reforms was a reduction of the presidential term from seven years to five years and the abolition of compulsory military service,” the article said. He also pushed heavily in support of the European Union, including transition France’s currency from the franc to the euro during his time in office.

Origins of the European Union

The earliest history of the European Union can be traced back to 1948 in the Netherlands. “Some 750 delegates met at The Hague Congress to consider what form political cooperation might take in a post-war Europe,” said Dr. Donald J. Harreld, Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Brigham Young University. Not all those delegates were political leaders, either—historians, journalists, business owners, and church leaders also showed up.

“The debate boiled down to those who favored a kind of watered-down United States of Europe that had been theorized during the 19th century as opposed to those who preferred the formation of a classic international organization like the United Nations,” Dr. Harreld said. “The result was the Council of Europe, which combined the characteristics of both—although without forcing member states to give up sovereignty, or even allowing the council to make decisions that were binding on all of them.”

In the following decades, many factors complicated the international unity and agreement that the Council of Europe hoped to begin. Some nations wished for Germany to rebuild and become more industrialized following World War II, while others—especially France—wanted tighter restrictions placed on the nation. In the 1950s, French foreign minister Robert Schuman proposed to pool together the coal and steel production in Western Europe, which led to the creation of the European Coal and Steel Community, or ECSC for short, which brought together six countries: France, Italy, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and West Germany.

Common Market, Single Market

The ECSC sought to reduce the possibility of Germany dominating the steel and coal industries in Western Europe. The alliance worked well enough that in 1957, the six ECSC countries worked out the Treaty of Rome, creating the European Economic Community (EEC) and ultimately serving three goals.

“First, the treaty called for the gradual elimination among members of import duties and other restrictions on trade in manufactured goods,” Dr. Harreld said. “Second, the treaty asked the signatories to establish common agricultural policies, transportation policies, and social welfare policies. And third, the treaty suggested that members could not unilaterally renounce their memberships.”

More nations signed up for the EEC, including Great Britain, who joined just as the world fell into recession in the 1970s. The recession threw the EEC’s Treaty of Rome under the bus and now caused more harm than good, economically. The so-called “common market” established under the Treaty of Rome had eliminated tariffs among its nations but set up restrictions and rules regarding which policies its members could pass into law. On the other hand, developing a “single market” was a far more integrated system.

“In a single market, all economic barriers are removed, meaning that goods and services—and capital and labor—can move as freely within the market as they can within a single country,” Dr. Harreld said. This fuller integration of nations appealed to many more countries.

Putting Pen to Paper

“After the fall of the Berlin Wall and the retreat of communism in Eastern Europe, many more European states would set their sights on membership in the single Europe,” he said. “So by the early 1990s, European governmental leaders were trying to figure out how to integrate EEC members into a single European Union, and what to do with all the Eastern European states that were expressing interest in membership.”

In December 1991, many European leaders met for a summit in Maastricht, in the Netherlands. Here they set the wheels in motion that led to the formal establishing of a European Union (EU) on November 1, 1993. A few years later, the unified currency would be established as the Euro, with EU members having the choice whether or not to adopt it as their own currency.

“The provisions of the Maastricht Treaty have created an atmosphere of significant unity,” Dr. Harreld said. “The European Union today unites a single market with standard laws and social services, and the free movement of people, capital, goods, and services, thereby, eliminating most border controls within member states. In this way, the dream of peaceful coexistence largely became true.”

Dr. Donald J. Harreld contributed to this article. Dr. Harreld is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of History at Brigham Young University. Dr. Harreld graduated from the University of Minnesota, receiving his M.A. in 1996. He received his Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota in 2000.