On Sept 26, France mourned the death of Jacques Chirac, the 22nd president.
Beginning his career as a dashing young bureaucrat, he later “bulldozed” his way to be France’s most formidable politician, earning him the nickname “le bulldozer”.
Standing on the right side of the political spectrum, Chirac’s appeal, however, was near universal in France.
His appeal went beyond the shores of France.
On the national day of mourning in France, many Asean countries lowered their flags at half-mast.
This is an important gesture as embassies do not necessarily lower their flags for the passing of the host country’s former head of state.
However, it was well known that Chirac had developed a close rapport with Prime Ministser Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad.
While France and Malaysia enjoyed cordial relations since Malaya’s independence in 1957, it was only during the premiership of Dr Mahathir, which coincided with Chirac’s presidency (1995 to 2007), that the relations between two countries took off.
Known for his tendency to develop stronger economic and cultural ties with Asia and Africa, Chirac found an ally and friend in Dr Mahathir.
Like France, Malaysia, under the stewardship of Dr Mahathir, was striving to safeguard its sense of destiny in a world described by Chirac as being “ruled by the law of the jungle”.
Chirac was also a vocal supporter of Palestinian rights, a cause that is dear to Malaysians.
The highlight of this unique friendship took a memorable turn when Malaysia and France denounced the Iraq war in 2003, forging Malaysia and France as unlikely allies.
For his part, Malaysia bestowed the inaugural Kuala Lumpur World Peace Award on Chirac.
The award was initiated by the Malaysian World Peace Foundation in recognition of Chirac’s dedication to the peaceful resolution of international conflicts, courage in the defence of principles, and commitment to cooperation among world nations.
The points of convergence in their worldview translated into policies.
In defence and security, Dr Mahathir was determined to break free of the pre-Merdeka policy mould by inching closer to the French. The strengthening of ties between the countries was manifested when Chirac accepted Dr Mahathir’s invitation to participate in the Lima Exhibition in 1997.
While there is no hard-and-fast rule whether “trade follows the flag” or vice-versa, investment ties between France and Malaysia increased with the deepening of Franco-Malaysian relations.
It was a time when Malaysia not only enjoyed a “friend that shares a converging worldview”, but one that we could do business with.
It was the golden age of Franco-Malaysian relations.
With the passing of Chirac, Malaysia lost a good friend in the West who understood our sentiments and aspirations well.
Chirac knew and realised that we are not a mere appendage of the Indo Pacific, but embraced our individuality as a nation, even on rare occasions where we did not see eye to eye.
Au revoir, monsieur le Président. You shall be missed.
Syed Nizamuddin Sayed Khassim
First secretary, Malaysian embassy, Paris, France