A touching moment

PARIS -- At nearly every inauguration, there is a brief moment that touches you, that stays with you long after the day is done. I have now covered four French inaugurations and have taken fleeting moments away from all of them.

My first was in 1995, when center-right leader Jacques Chirac was replacing Francois Mitterrand, who after 14 years in power had become the country’s longest-serving president and the first one from the left under the Fifth Republic, France’s current system of government established in 1958.

When the two men came out into the courtyard of the Elysee Palace, I was immediately struck by the difference in their appearance. Mitterrand, 78, was very frail (he would die months later from the prostate cancer that he had concealed for most of his presidency); while 62-year-old Chirac was at the top of his form.

Jacques Chirac (l) accompanies Francois Mitterrand, May 17, 1995. (AFP / Patrick Kovarik)

I always find that moment -- when one man leaves the powerful post of the French presidency and another takes his place -- sad, although for different reasons at each event. Watching Mitterrand I couldn’t help but feel sorry for the man who had fought to stay in that position for so long despite his illness.

You would think that the peaceful handing over of power in one of Europe’s most important countries would be a solemn affair. Apparently not all the time. Years later, when he was himself ceding the position to his successor Nicolas Sarkozy, Chirac told me that Mitterrand told him to take care of the ducks on the grounds of the Elysee and not to let his dogs bother them. Apparently they discussed more serious matters as well, but Chirac didn’t share those with me.

Chirac's inauguration, May 17, 1995. (AFP / Patrick Kovarik)

Lots of things have changed in the 21 years that I have been covering French presidential inaugurations. My equipment for one. For the Chirac-Mitterrand handover, I shot with film being careful to save it for the ‘important’ images, instead of photographing the moments on the sidelines -- like a chauffeur leaving the Elysee with Mitterrand’s hat on a pillow of some sort and carefully placing it in the trunk of the waiting car. I still have that image in my mind -- the hat resting on a pillow in the trunk of that car -- but unfortunately I didn’t photograph it, because I didn’t want to risk running out of film at a crucial moment during the actual ceremony.

Back then, once I was done with a roll of film, I would hand it to a runner who would then drive it on his motorcycle to AFP headquarters to be processed and sent out to clients. Today, I can file my photos directly from my camera, as soon as I take them, to the AFP photo desk, which sends them out within moments to clients.

Another thing that has changed is the security. When I covered my second inauguration, Chirac’s handover to Sarkozy in 2007, I simply nodded at the security guards at the gates, without even taking out my press card -- since I had been the Elysee photographer for AFP for years, they all knew me. During the handover to France’s youngest-ever leader, 39-year-old Emmanuel Macron this weekend, I had to run all of my equipment through a scanner and walk through a scanner myself.

During my second inauguration, in May 2007, I was once again moved, but for different reasons. I had covered Chirac for six years and I suspected that life after the presidency would be difficult for him, with his declining health. Chirac was always very warm with us photographers and I would miss him.

Chirac (l) welcomes Nicolas Sarkozy at the Elysee, May 16, 2007. (AFP / Patrick Kovarik)

I wasn’t the only one to be moved. The Elysee staff had gathered to the left of the courtyard, as usual, and when Chirac appeared, there was a visible outpouring of emotion. I can still see Chirac’s daughter, Claude, wiping away her tears. Sarkozy accompanied him to the waiting car and saluted as it drove away.

The difference in style between the two leaders was on full display the next day, when I was in the courtyard once again, waiting to photograph Sarkozy arriving for his first full day of work. I figured it will be the traditional picture -- a man in a suit. But when the door of the car opened, out came Sarkozy -- in shorts, sneakers and a T-shirt damp from sweat. A bit of a change from Chirac, who was very presidential at all times. I told myself it was time to stop with the Elysee and switched beats three months later.

Sarkozy arrives at the Elysee after jogging, May 17, 2007. (AFP / Patrick Kovarik)

It was raining for the Sarkozy-Francois Hollande handover in May 2012. The personal dislike between the two men was palpable. Which I suppose is not surprising considering the Hollande ran his entire campaign repudiating Sarkozy’s policies.

France's president Nicolas Sarkozy (l) welcomes his successor Francois Hollande upon his arrival at the Elysee Palace for the inauguration. (AFP / Patrick Kovarik)

The picture that I was hoping for -- the new president accompanying the outgoing one to the car didn’t pan out, as Hollande quickly went back inside the palace. But I did get a nice one of Sarkozy and his wife Carla Bruni walking to the car.

(AFP / Patrick Kovarik)

Emmanuel Macron’s inauguration this weekend was particularly long. From the way he slowly went up the Elysee steps after arriving inside the courtyard, to the length of time it took for the two men to emerge again, after the swearing in. As we waited, the photographers joked that the outgoing president probably didn’t want to leave.

Even once the two did reappear, with a very solemn (or tense, I couldn’t tell which) Macron, their good-byes seemed to take longer than usual as well. The scene didn’t move me as much as in the preceding years. I suppose that’s because Hollande is still young and in good health whereas Mitterrand and Chirac were both in decline.

May 14, 2017. (AFP / Patrick Kovarik)

This was my last inauguration. The skies were overcast for most of the morning. At one point, we saw Hollande look out the window at the sky, no doubt wondering if Mother Nature would literally rain on his parade again (when he took power, it poured as he rode down the Champs Elysees, so he was completely soaked). But we got lucky -- when the two men appeared on the Elysee steps after the swearing in, the sun came out for a brief moment.

This blog was written with Pierre Celerier in Paris.

(AFP / Patrick Kovarik)


Patrick Kovarik