Sunday 20 October 2019

Jacques Chirac obituary: Brave statesman and bon vivant who never lost his common touch


Charming: French President Jacques Chirac in 2005. Pictures: Reuters
Charming: French President Jacques Chirac in 2005. Pictures: Reuters
President Chirac greets President Mary McAleese and Taoiseach Bertie Ahern during a visit to Dublin in 2004. Photo: Maxwells
Young Jacques Chirac aged 18 in 1950. Picture: PA

Elaine Ganley

Jacques Chirac, a two-term French president who was the first leader to acknowledge France's role in the Holocaust and who defiantly opposed the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, has died at 86.

As mourners brought flowers to his Paris residence, world leaders were effusive in their praise for the man who led France for 12 years.

His death was announced to lawmakers sitting in France's National Assembly and members held a minute of silence.

The Eiffel Tower in Paris went dark last night to pay him tribute.

Mr Chirac died "peacefully, among his loved ones", his son-in-law Frederic Salat-Baroux said. He did not give a cause of death, although Mr Chirac had had repeated health problems since leaving office in 2007.

Police set up barricades around his Paris residence, as French people, and politicians of all stripes, looked past Mr Chirac's flaws to share grief and fond memories of his presidency and his decades in politics.

Mr Chirac was long the standard-bearer of France's conservative right, and mayor of Paris for nearly two decades. As president from 1995-2007, he was a consummate global diplomat but failed to reform the French economy or defuse tensions between police and minority youths that exploded into riots across France in 2005. Yet Mr Chirac showed courage and statesmanship during his presidency.

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 the actions of the French nation at the time.

"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 politically humiliated by the defeat.

At home, a host of scandals dogged Mr Chirac, including allegations of the misuse of funds and of 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 said he was suffering severe memory lapses, possibly related to a stroke.

Mr Chirac ultimately became one of the French's favourite political figures, often praised for his down-to-earth human touch rather than his political achievements.

Former Socialist president François Hollande called Mr Chirac a "humanist", a "man of culture" who knew France to the core.

"The French, regardless of their convictions, are losing today a statesman, but also a friend," he tweeted.

President Michael D Higgins described Mr Chirac as "a good friend of Ireland".

Mr Higgins said Mr Chirac's "contribution as a politician and statesman, over the course of a long career in public service spanning four decades, was a significant one. As President of France, Jacques Chirac played a prominent role throughout one of the most important periods in recent European history."

German Chancellor Angela Merkel paid tribute to "a great statesman and European" while Britain's prime minister Boris Johnson said Mr Chirac was a "formidable political leader who shaped the destiny of his nation".

In his 40 years in public life, Mr Chirac was derided by critics as opportunistic and impulsive. But as president, he embodied the fierce independence so treasured in France. He championed the UN and multi-polarism as a counterweight to US global dominance, and defended agricultural subsidies over protests by the EU.

In 1995, one of his first decisions as president was to launch a series of nuclear tests in French Polynesia - prompting criticism from Australia, New Zealand, Japan and the US. France stopped its tests the next year when it signed the international treaty banning all nuclear explosions.

In 2002, Mr Chirac presciently made a dramatic call for action against climate change.

"Our house is burning down and we're blind to it. Nature, mutilated and overexploited, can no longer regenerate and we refuse to admit it," he said at the Johannesburg World Summit, adding the 21st century must not become "the century of humanity's crime against life itself".

Mr Chirac was also remembered for another trait valued by the French: style. Tall, dapper and charming, Mr Chirac was a bon vivant who openly enjoyed the trappings of power: luxury trips abroad and life in a government-owned palace. His slicked hair and ski-slope nose were favourites 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.

After two failed attempts, Mr Chirac won the presidency in 1995, ending 14 years of Socialist rule. But his government quickly fell out of favour and elections in 1997 forced him to share power with Socialist prime minister Lionel Jospin.

The pendulum swung the other way during Mr Chirac's re-election bid in 2002, when far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen took a surprise second place behind Mr Chirac in first-round voting. In a rare show of unity, the moderate right and the left united behind Mr Chirac, and he crushed Mr Le Pen with 82pc of the vote in the runoff. Later that year, an extreme right militant shot at Mr Chirac - and missed - during a Bastille Day parade.

Mr Chirac's outspoken opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 rocked relations with France's top ally and weakened the Atlantic alliance. Angry Americans poured Bordeaux wine into the gutter and restaurants renamed French fries "freedom fries" in retaliation.

The US invaded anyway, yet Mr Chirac gained international support from other war critics.

Mr Chirac was born in Paris on November 29, 1932, the only child of a well-to-do businessman. A lively youth, he was expelled from school for shooting paper wads at a teacher.

He sold the Communist daily newspaper 'L'Humanite' on the streets for a brief time.

He travelled to the US as a young man, and as president he fondly remembered hitch-hiking across the country. He worked as a fork-lift driver in St Louis and a soda jerk at a restaurant while attending summer school at Harvard University.

Mr Chirac served in Algeria during the independence war, which France lost, and enrolled at France's École Nationale d'Administration, the elite training ground for the French political class.

In 1956, Mr Chirac married Bernadette Chodron de Courcel, herself involved in politics in the central farming region of Correze. They had two daughters, Laurence and Claude, who became his presidential spokeswoman.

He worked his way up the political ladder and was named prime minister in 1974 by President Valery Giscard d'Estaing at the age of 41. He became mayor of Paris in 1977 and used the office as a power base for the next 18 years.

In recent years, Mr Chirac was very rarely seen in public. He was visibly weak and walked with a cane in his last public appearance in 2014.

He is survived by his wife and daughter Claude. His daughter Laurence died in 2016 after a long illness.

Irish Independent

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