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Jacques Chirac in New Orleans

ARTHUR NEAD ILLUSTRATION

Now that France has elected a new President, Emmanuel Macron, I have been thinking that there have been two French Presidents who have set foot in New Orleans. One was Charles DeGaulle, whose post-war celebrity status was so high in 1960 that the city even named a West Bank road after him. The other was not yet a president, but only a student when he was here, yet he left his impressions too. Jacques Chirac served as Le Président from 1995 to 2007, capping off a career which also included being mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995.

When Chirac was a graduate student, he spent time in this city doing a study of the Port of New Orleans. In 1954, while here, he became seriously ill with pneumonia. A French- speaking doctor was called on. That was New Orleanian Homer Dupuy, who nursed young Chirac back to good health. For the rest of his life, Dupuy would tell about maintaining a correspondence with Chirac as he ascended through French politics. Dupuy would later achieve his own throne. He was Rex in 1963 and continued to be a passionate member of the organization.

Former journalist and New Orleans native Tom Sancton, also known for his jazz clarinet, once served as Paris Bureau Chief for Time magazine. In that capacity he met Chriac several times. Sancton recalled that each time he was re-introduced to Chirac, the President was delighted to hear that he was from New Orleans. Chirac would tell Sancton about his experience as an exchange student here, an honor that was reported in the local media. According to Sancton, Chirac liked to say that The Times-Picayune was the first newspaper in which his name was ever published.

Some of his memories were confused. According to Sancton, Chirac would tell about going to New Orleans jazz clubs and hearing Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway perform, neither of whom lived or worked here. He also said that Ellington became his mentor and the two had dinner at Galatoire’s, a racially improbable pairing in the 1950s.

Chirac, for the most part, had a glorious career; though it was bumpy toward the end, with Chirac having received a two-year suspended sentence on a charge of diverting public funds. As a free man, he could have come back to visit his old haunts. He could inspect the Joan of Arc statue and take a drive down DeGaulle Drive, maybe even have dinner at Galatoire’s. And if he wanted to hear music, he could have gone to a jazz club where, on a given night, if the clarinet player reminded him of the old Paris bureau days, it might have been Sancton.Having studied it before, Chirac might even have wanted to revisit the Port of New Orleans. A lot will have changed but one thing would be the same. He would have gotten his name in The Times-Picayune again.

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