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Former French president Jacques Chirac dies at 86

Opponents and supporters pay tribute to leader

By AFP - Sep 26,2019 - Last updated at Sep 26,2019

PARIS — Jacques Chirac, the former French president who was a colossal figure in the country's politics for three decades, died on Thursday at the age of 86, his family told AFP.

The centre-right Chirac, acknowledged even by foes as a supreme political fighter, rose to prominence as mayor of Paris before becoming prime minister and then serving as head of state from 1995 to 2007.

Former opponents and supporters paid tribute to a man with a genuine love for France, while world leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin hailed him as a great statesman.

"President Jacques Chirac died this morning surrounded by his family, peacefully," his son-in-law Frederic Salat-Baroux told AFP.

His time at the Elysee Palace saw France adopt the euro single currency and, in a landmark moment for relations with Washington, loudly oppose the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Always tenacious, he bounced back from defeats in the 1981 and 1988 presidential elections to finally claim the Elysee in 1995.

His legacy is overshadowed by a conviction for graft dating to his time as mayor of Paris, which saw him handed a suspended jail term. But this did little to dent his popularity among supporters.

Critics questioned how much Chirac had actually achieved, arguing he spent most of his political energy trying to stay in power rather than achieving change.

"He leaves behind him 40 years of political battles. But his legacy is very thin given how his career was built around the single ambition of winning power and then keeping it," the left-wing Mediapart website said in an editorial.

 'Embodied France' 

 

Chirac's 12 years in the Elysee Palace in two mandates made him France's second longest-serving postwar president after his Socialist predecessor Francois Mitterrand.

"Jacques Chirac is part of the history of France," said Parliament Speaker Richard Ferrand from the centrist party of President Emmanuel Macron as he announced Chirac's passing to parliament.

Both chambers — the lower house national assembly and the upper house Senate — observed a minute of silence after the news was announced.

Macron cancelled a planned trip to the south of France to discuss his pension reform and will address the nation at 8:00pm (18:00 GMT), his office said.

Macron's Socialist predecessor Francois Hollande praised Chirac as a "fighter" who had "known how to establish a personal link with the French".

And Chirac's rightwing successor Nicolas Sarkozy, who regarded the former president as a mentor, said Chirac "embodied a France faithful to its universal values".

 

 'Loved France so much' 

 

A conservative politician but with an appeal that extended beyond the right, Chirac also served two stints as prime minister, in 1974-76 and 1986-88, and was mayor of his native Paris from 1977-1995.

The Socialist Mitterrand was a longtime political adversary, with the two enduring a famously uneasy power-sharing period of "cohabitation" when Chirac was premier.

It was Chirac's time at the helm of the French capital that resulted, once he had lost his presidential immunity, in a conviction in December 2011 for embezzlement and misuse of public funds.

He contested the ruling but did not appeal it, saying the French people "know who I am: An honest man" who worked only for "the grandeur of France and for peace".

Despite his long marriage to Bernadette, his dalliances with other women were an open secret to many. He said just before leaving office: "There have been women I have loved a lot, as discreetly as possible."

He suffered a stroke in 2005 and underwent kidney surgery in December 2013, and was rarely seen in public in recent years.

 

 'Towering figure' 

 

A politician with a popular touch who loved the company of farmers and was famed for pithy one-liners, Chirac was regarded by supporters as one of France's most charismatic postwar politicians.

He was also passionate about global art, particularly from Asia, and he leaves behind the acclaimed Quai Branly indigenous art museum in Paris which carries his name.

"He loved France so much. He loved the people, he loved his contact with them, he loved seeing them, he loved laughing with them," Line Renaud, an actress and friend of the former leader, told BFM television channel.

Jean-Claude Juncker, European Commission chief and former Luxembourg premier, was "moved and devastated" to learn of Chirac's death, a spokeswoman said, adding that Europe was losing a "great statesman".

Putin heaped praise on Chirac as a "wise and far-sighted statesman" and also singlled out "his intellect and huge knowledge", the Kremlin said.

Merkel said he was "an outstanding partner and friend to us Germans" while British Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Chirac had "shaped the destiny of his nation".

Former British premier Tony Blair, who along with former US president George W. Bush backed the Iraq war that Chirac so vehemently opposed, described him as "a towering figure in French and European politics".

"Whatever our differences, I found him unfailingly kind, generous and supportive," Blair said on Twitter.

Officials from across the political spectrum in France, for once, came together to pay tribute to what he had done for the country.

Chirac "loved France more than those who came after", said far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon.

Far-right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen said he was "capable of opposing madness and the war in Iraq".

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