The former President of France, Jacques Chirac, aged 78, will face a trial on corruption charges next month. The prosecution will allege that public funds were used to pay some of M Chirac’s political allies while he was mayor of Paris. There will be a charge of embezzlement which can carry a prison sentence of up to 10 years.
There have been some suggestions published in the French press that the ex-president might be in the early stages of Alzheimer’s and thus may not be fit to stand trial. His wife, Bernadette, brushes this aside and says that while her husband has suffered memory lapses, he wants to be treated like any other citizen and will face any charges brought.
Jacques Chirac has described himself as a “non-practising Catholic”, in contrast to Madame Chirac, who is a regular churchgoer. It is not unknown, in the Latin tradition, that the man in the family disdains religious faith, while the woman is religious. (There is a similar scenario with Mr and Mrs Clegg: the Deputy PM has declared himself a secular ist, while his wife Miriam is an observant Catholic.) And yet, Jacques Chirac has, in recent times, developed a spiritual friendship with a 47-year-old rabbi, Chaim Korsia. The two men have known one another since 1998, but more recently, Rabbi Korsia has become especially close to the ex-president, seeing him three or four times a week.
In their meetings, the rabbi and the ex-president follow a programme of spiritual reading, and talking about meaningful matters of life and death. Sometimes they go on charitable outings and recently they visited a centre for the young disabled.
The rabbi said afterwards that Mr Chirac gave the young people there “an extraordinary lesson in optimism”.
When people are moving towards the last years of their lives they may become more reflective about exploring spiritual dimensions of existence. Perhaps, too, Pascal’s Wager comes to mind: you lose nothing by embracing faith; you may lose everything by abjuring it.
But it’s interesting that Jacques Chirac has chosen Jewish spirituality. Obviously he trusts Rabbi Corsia, and finds wisdom in their discourses. And indeed, spiritual values can come from many sources.
Iheard many recommendations of the film Of Gods and Men, which still on at the Curzon in London. As it happens, I got to see it in Paris last weekend, and indeed, it is one of the most quietly impressive movies in recent years.
I had vaguely recalled the original episode on which it was based: the heroic French monks who stayed on in an Algerian village, in part for the sake of the local people they were caring for, despite savage threats from guerrillas.
In the 1990s Algeria was so unsafe there were virtually no European newspaper correspondents left there. But still, the monks remained: it was their calling. And Of Gods and Men, directed by Xavier Beauvois, tells their story.
The two lead actors, Lambert Wilson, as the abbot, Christian, and Michael Lonsdale, as the monk-doctor, Luc, are French actors who happen to have English names, and they give terrific performances. Small wonder the movie was awarded a special prize for ecumenism, as well as best picture awards. (The monks show respect for Islam and read the Koran.) But while I loved the film, it made me doubt the efficacy of pacifism. Defencelessness, for the monks, is at the core of Christianity, as the Christ Child in the manger was defenceless.
Yet in some part of my brain, I longed for Bruce Willis to appear, brandishing an AK-47. Violent men only respect superior power – force majeure, as the strategists call it.
I’ve also had it up to the eyeballs with “anti-colonialism”. An Algerian politician explains to Fr Christian, the prior of the Cistercian community, that this mayhem is an outcome of French colonialism. Oh, leave it out, brother! Without French colonialism some of these benighted lands wouldn’t have had the electric light, let alone the military hardware displayed with such arrogance.
But Fr Christian meekly accepts the reproach. He goes back to giving witness to a faith of love – and defencelessness. The impact of the film leaves a durable imprint on the mind.
One of the reasons I am always cheered by visiting France is being called madame. “Bonjour, madame... Merci, madame... Au revoir, madame...” This is only a formula, and it’s not personal, but I think it accords dignity to the person.
Even the rather weary waiter in a brasserie that served me one of the worst meals I’ve ever eaten not only politely called me Madame, but used the third person: “Would Madame desire a dessert?” The tummy upset caused by the ghastly fare was but a small price to pay for the sheer respect.