Jacques Chirac will be best remembered for angering the United States with his public opposition to the 2003 war in Iraq. (Image Credit: Reuters)
Former French president Jacques Chirac, a centre-right career politician who served as head of state from 1995 to 2007, has passed away at the age of 86, his family told AFP on Thursday. "President Jacques Chirac died this morning surrounded by his family, peacefully," his son-in-law Frederic Salat-Baroux told the news agency.
Twice elected head of state in 1995 and 2002, his 12 years in the Elysee Palace made him France's second longest-serving post-war president after his Socialist predecessor Francois Mitterrand. He also served as the prime minister from 1974-1976, and for a second time from 1986-1988 and was mayor of his native Paris from 1977-1995.
An instinctive conservative 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.
Chirac had rarely been seen in public in recent years and was long known to have been suffering from ill health.
In what may have been his finest hour, France's last leader with memories of World War II crushed the myth of his nation's innocence in the persecution of Jews and their deportation during the Holocaust when he acknowledged France's part.
"Yes, the criminal folly of the occupiers was seconded by the French, by the French state," he said on July 16, 1995. "France, the land of the Enlightenment and human rights ... delivered those it protects to their executioners." With words less grand, the man who embraced European unity once calling it an "art" raged at the French ahead of their "no" vote in a 2005 referendum on the European constitution meant to fortify the EU.
"If you want to shoot yourself in the foot, do it, but after don't complain," he said. "It's stupid, I'm telling you." He was personally and politically humiliated by the defeat.
His popularity didn't fully recover until after he left office in 2007, handing power to protege-turned-rival Nicolas Sarkozy.
Chirac ultimately became one of the French's favorite political figures, often praised for his down-to-earth human touch rather than his political achievements.
In his 40 years in public life, Chirac was derided by critics as opportunistic and impulsive.
But as president, he embodied the fierce independence so treasured in France: He championed the United Nations and multipolarism as a counterweight to U.S. global dominance, and defended agricultural subsidies over protests by the European Union.
Chirac was also remembered for another trait valued by the French: style.
Tall, dapper and charming, Chirac was a well-bred bon vivant who openly enjoyed the trappings of power: luxury trips abroad and life in a government-owned palace. His slicked-back hair and ski-slope nose were favorites of political cartoonists.
Yet he retained a common touch that worked wonders on the campaign trail, exuding warmth when kissing babies and enthusiasm when farmers ‘a key constituency’ displayed their tractors. His preferences were for western movies and beer and "tete de veau," calf's head.
After two failed attempts, Chirac won the presidency in 1995, ending 14 years of Socialist rule. But his government quickly fell out of favor and parliamentary elections in 1997 forced him to share power with Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.
The pendulum swung the other way during Chirac's re-election bid in 2002, when far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen took a surprise second place behind Chirac in first-round voting. In a rare show of unity, the moderate right and the left united behind Chirac, and he crushed le Pen with 82 percent of the vote in the runoff.
"By thwarting extremism, the French have just confirmed, reaffirmed with force, their attachment to a democratic tradition, liberty and engagement in Europe," Chirac enthused at his second inauguration.
Later that year, an extreme right militant shot at Chirac ‘and missed’ during a Bastille Day parade in 2002. Inspecting troops, the president was unaware of the drama.
While he had won a convincing mandate for his anti-crime, pro-Europe agenda at home, Chirac's outspoken opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 rocked relations with France's top ally, and the clash weakened the Atlantic alliance.
Angry Americans poured Bordeaux wine into the gutter and restaurants renamed French fries "freedom fries" in retaliation.
The United States invaded anyway, yet Chirac gained international support from other war critics.
Troubles over Iraq aside, Chirac was often seen as the consummate diplomat. He cultivated ties with leaders across the Middle East and Africa. He was the first head of state to meet with U.S. President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Chirac was greeted by adulating crowds on a 2003 trip to Algeria, where he once battled Algerians fighting for independence from France.
At home, myriad scandals dogged Chirac, including allegations of misuse of funds and kickbacks during his time as Paris mayor.
He was formally charged in 2007 after he left office as president, losing immunity from prosecution. In 2011, he was found guilty of misuse of public money, breach of trust and illegal conflict of interest and given a two-year suspended jail sentence.
He did not attend the trial. His lawyers explained he was suffering severe memory lapses, possibly related to a stroke. While still president in 2005, Chirac suffered a stroke that put him in the hospital for a week. He had a pacemaker inserted in 2008.