Former French president Jacques Chirac dies aged 86

Controversial politician was country’s second-longest-serving president, serving from 1995 to 2007

A 2006 file photograph of former French president Jacques Chirac. Photograph: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images

A 2006 file photograph of former French president Jacques Chirac. Photograph: Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images

 

Former French president Jacques Chirac has died in Paris at the age of 86, his family has announced to Agence France Presse.

Mr Chirac ruled France from 1995 until 2007, making him the second-longest-serving president, after Francois Mitterrand.

Though Chirac was often unpopular and ineffectual in office, neither of his successors matched his charisma or dignified manner.

Affection and nostalgia for Chirac grew during his retirement. He had not been seen in public since November 2014, but France is genuinely saddened by his passing.

“We have lost a statesman who we loved as much as he loved us,” President Emmanuel Macron said in a televised homage to Chirac on Thursday night. The funeral will be held at the Église Saint-Sulpice at noon on Monday, when France will observe a day of national mourning. 

The Chirac charm was evident when the French leader performed a baise-main on greeting then President Mary Robinson during the December 1996 EU summit that gave birth to the Monetary and Stability Pact.

President Mary Robinson, meets the French president Jacques Chirac at a lunch which she hosted in honourof the members the European Council and the President of the European Parliament at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, Dublin in 1996. File photogrpah: Paddy Whelan
President Mary Robinson meets  French president Jacques Chirac at a lunch which she hosted in honourof the members the European Council and the President of the European Parliament at the Royal Hospital, Kilmainham, Dublin in 1996. File photogrpah: Paddy Whelan

Chirac was married for 63 years to the aristocratic and long-suffering Bernadette Chodron de Courcel, whose father had been a companion of Gen Charles de Gaulle.

Like his predecessor and successors, Chirac was known to have an eye for the ladies. But unlike them, he managed to limit public knowledge of his liaisons to rumour.

In the 1950s, between studies at Sciences Po and the École Nationale d’Administration (ENA), Chirac worked as a soda jerk at a Howard Johnson’s in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and attended Harvard summer school.

While spending time in the south, he dated Frances Herlihy, who drove him around in her convertible Cadillac and called him “honey chile”.

Until he suffered a stroke in September 2005, Chirac appeared to be robustly healthy. A former agriculture minister, he performed day-long stints at the salon de l’agriculture, where he tossed back incredible amounts of food and drink. Despite his education and elegant clothes, he was a slap-on-the-back, hail-fellow-well-met kind of politician.

Nuclear weapons

Chirac was elected in May 1995 on the promise of healing the fracture sociale or social division in France. He favoured dirigiste economic policies and opposed what he regarded as “Anglo-Saxon ultraliberalism”.

In July 1995, Chirac became the first French president to admit the shameful role played by French authorities during the second World War.

“France, land of the Enlightenment, human rights and asylum, committed the irreparable. She broke her word and delivered those under her protection to their executioners,” Chirac said at the Vélodrome d’Hiver, from whence Jews were transported to Nazi death camps.

In the autumn of 1995, Chirac provoked protests around the world by testing French nuclear weapons in the south Pacific. The following April, France ratified the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.

During a historic trip to Israel, Jordan, Syria and Lebanon in October 1995, Chirac antagonised Washington by demanding a European role in the peace process, and the easing of sanctions against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq.

In the Old City of Jerusalem, Chirac turned on Israeli plain-clothes security men who were harrassing his delegation.

“I’m starting to get fed up with this,” he shouted in accented English. “What do you want? Do you want me to go back to my plane?”

The clash was followed by Chirac’s tumultuous welcome in Ramallah. No other western head of state had visited the Palestinian capital. In an address to the Palestinian Legislative Council, Chirac called the Palestinians “a dignified and brave people” and told them they were “victims of a history that was not their own”.

Palestinian women named baby boys “Jacques Chirac.”

Mr Chirac was perpetuating the “Arab policy” of Gen de Gaulle, who declared a military boycott of Israel after the 1967 Arab-Israeli war.

Wept openly

Chirac’s affinity with the Arab world was strengthened by his friendship with Rafiq Hariri, the Lebanese billionaire statesman who was assassinated on Valentine’s Day 2005. Chirac wept openly at a subsequent commemoration at the Institut du Monde Arabe.

In 2003, Chirac threatened to veto a UN resolution that would have legitimated the US and British invasion of Iraq. He rallied China, Germany and Russia to the cause. Though he was not able to prevent the war, Chirac ensured French troops did not come home in body bags. That may have been his greatest achievement.

Nicolas Sarkozy and Francois Hollande would abandon France’s “Arab policy” to align France more closely with Israel.

Mr Chirac was the only western head of state to attend Hafez al Assad’s funeral in June 2000. He invited Assad’s son Bashar to Paris, but became disillusioned with him.

Likewise, Chirac mentored the Moroccan King Mohamed VI after the death of his father, Hassan II. The Chiracs were on holiday in a royal palace in Agadir three years ago, when Mr Chirac was rushed back to Paris with a pulmonary infection. He was feared close to death then, and remained hospitalised for nearly a month.

Crippling strikes in the first year of his term convinced Chirac that it was impossible to reform France. He made the mistake of calling an early parliamentary election in 1997, which doomed him to endure four years of “cohabitation” with the socialist Jospin government.

Lionel Jospin looked certain to defeat Chirac in the 2002 presidential race. But the left-wing vote fragmented in the first round, sending Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the far right-wing Front National (FN), to the run-off.

After two weeks of mass demonstrations against the FN, Chirac was re-elected by 82 per cent of the vote.

Throughout Chirac’s second term, Nicolas Sarkozy, 23 years Chirac’s junior, was nipping at the president’s heels. On Bastille day in 2004, Chirac attempted to put Sarkozy, his interior minister, in his place, telling a television interview, “I decide. He executes my orders.”

‘Grave-digger’

The following Bastille day, at his own garden party a block away from the Élysée, Sarkozy compared Chirac to Louis XVI, tinkering with clocks on the day the revolution started.

In the intervening year, Chirac called a disastrous referendum on the European Constitutional Treaty, which was defeated by 55 per cent of the vote.

The French president was disgraced. Libération called him “the sick man of Europe” and a “serial loser”.

“Chirac will go down in history as the grave-digger of European integration,” the Nouvel Observateur predicted.

Chirac’s descent into political hell was not over. In October 2005, two immigrant youths were electrocuted in a power substation with the police in pursuit. Weeks of rioting ensued.

Then Chirac’s prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, attempted to create a “first employment contract” which would have allowed employers to pay young recruits less than the minimum wage. More demonstrations and riots followed.

With Chirac weakened by a stroke and the accumulation of political errors, the twilight of his presidency was a time of stagnation. Sarkozy’s election was intially seen as a rush of new blood and energy.

Chirac was also haunted by financial scandals going back to his 1977-1995 stint as mayor of Paris. Suffering from a degenerative neurological disease, he was excused from attending his own trial in March 2011.

In December 2011, Chirac was convicted of diverting public funds, abuse of trust and illegal conflict of interest. His city government had given fictional city jobs to 28 party activists. Chirac received a two-year suspended sentence.

Vibrant homage

Chirac supported Francois Hollande against Nicolas Sarkozy in the 2012 presidential race. Though Chirac was from the right and Hollande was from the left, both politicians had established their base in Corrèze, southwestern France.

When the Musée du Quai Branly was rechristened the Musée Jacques Chirac in June 2016, Hollande paid a vibrant homage to Chirac’s passion for the “distant arts” of Africa, Amerindians, Asia and the South Pacific.

Bernadette Chirac said in January 2014 that her husband would not speak again in public, and suffered from bouts of memory loss. He was not able to attend the public inauguration of his museum.

The Chiracs had two daughters, Claude and Laurence. Claude was her father’s closest political adviser. Laurence suffered from anorexia and was hospitalised for many years. Chirac was deeply affected by her death in April 2016.

Among those mourning Jacques Chirac is his former protégé and prime minister, the mayor of Bordeaux, Alain Juppé, who Chirac described as “the best among us.”