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Former French president Jacques Chirac dies aged 86

Jacques Chirac was president when France won its first football World Cup in 1998.
Jacques Chirac was president when France won its first football World Cup in 1998. AFP/Gabriel Bouys

Former French president Jacques Chirac has died at the age of 86, his family announced Thursday. Throughout his long political career, Chirac embodied bonhomie and clubbability. He was the first leader to acknowledge France's role in the Holocaust and he defiantly opposed the US invasion of Iraq.

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

French prime minister and future president Georges Pompidou (L) with Jacques Chirac (C) and Georges Seguy, chairman of the pro-communist CGT trade union, 27 May 1968.
French prime minister and future president Georges Pompidou (L) with Jacques Chirac (C) and Georges Seguy, chairman of the pro-communist CGT trade union, 27 May 1968. AFP

Born in Paris on 29 November 1932, Chirac was a handsome, charismatic man who won people over easily, cultivating a likeable image of a down-to-earth, beer-drinking man of the people.

He began on the path towards politics when he secured a place at the elite Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA), which has groomed a long line of French presidents.

    After graduation, he made a beeline for the top – becoming chief of staff in 1962 to then president Georges Pompidou, who dubbed him "the bulldozer".

    The conservative politician proved to be a man who could switch positions rapidly.

    He served two terms as prime minister, from 1974-76 and 1986-88, and was mayor of Paris from 1977-1995. 

    Jacques Chirac (à droite) à la sortie d'un Conseil des ministres, le 28 août 1969.
    Jacques Chirac (à droite) à la sortie d'un Conseil des ministres, le 28 août 1969. AFP

    After two failed bids for the top job, Chirac was finally elected president in 1995.

    His surge to a second term in the 2002 presidential elections came after the surprise first round elimination of the socialist party candidate Lionel Jospin.

    Chirac then went head to head with his sworn enemy Jean-Marie Le Pen. Ahead of the second round, he refused to debate publicly with Le Pen. "When faced with intolerance and hatred, there is no possible deal, no possible compromise, no possible debate," Chirac declared.

    The stance reaped dividends. He romped back into the Elysée. The commentariat and chattering classes bristled that Chirac was the lesser of two evils.

    But the same tranche of society had denigrated democracy by advocating a boycott of the first round of voting, effectively allowing Le Pen into the reckoning.

    Still, what did Chirac care? He was president with more than 82 percent of the vote.

    And the following year he showed steely statesmanship. He refused to join George W. Bush and the United States in attacking Iraq.

    No wonder he was described in a 2015 poll as the French people's "favourite" president.

    He could boast of being one of the most enduring politicians of the Fifth Republic – established by Charles de Gaulle in October 1958 – with a career spanning 42 years, which included two spells as prime minister, and 18 years as Mayor of Paris.

    Though his 12 years as president, between May 1995 and June 2007, have been described as a mixed bag, there was – to his credit – a drop in joblessness as well as palpable efforts to reduce the number of road casualties and boost cancer prevention.

    And in a break with his predecessors, he was the first French president to acknowledge the responsibility of the state in deporting Jews during the Vichy regime.

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    On the other side, he was the first former head of state to be indicted and sentenced – two years suspended – for a fictitious jobs scam during his tenure as Mayor of Paris.

    His love, though, for traditional arts was a fact. Fired by a love of Asia and Africa, he was the driving force behind the 2006 opening of the Quai Branly Museum in Paris to house treasures from Africa and Oceania.

    In 2016, it was renamed Musée du quai Branly – Jacques Chirac. A fittingly tropical epitaph for one of France's spicier presidential characters.

    The former French president at the Jacques Chirac Foundation awards ceremony at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, 21 November 2014.
    The former French president at the Jacques Chirac Foundation awards ceremony at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, 21 November 2014. PATRICK KOVARIK / POOL / AFP

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