PARIS >> 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 U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, died today at 86.
President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute in a nationally televised speech to a predecessor he said incarnated an “independent and proud” country and called Chirac “a statesman we loved as much as he loved us.”
“We are remembering tonight with emotion and affection his freedom, his personality, the talent he had to reconcile simplicity and grandeur, proximity and dignity, love of the motherland and openness to the universal,” Macron said.
The Eiffel Tower went dark in the former head of state’s honor today, and a national day of mourning will be observed Monday. Scores of people lined up to enter the Elysee presidential palace so they could sign condolence books.
World leaders were effusive in their praise for the man who led France for 12 years.
Chirac died “peacefully, among his loved ones,” his son-in-law Frederic Salat-Baroux told the Associated Press. He did not give a cause of death, although 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 Chirac’s flaws to share grief and fond memories of his presidency and his decades in politics.
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo said condolences books would be opened in the capital’s official buildings and a giant screen showing photos of Chirac installed in front of the city hall.
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 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 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.
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.
Condolences on Thursday poured in from French citizens, including political rivals, and international leaders.
Former Socialist French President Francois Hollande called 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.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel paid tribute to “a great statesman and European” while Britain’s Prime Minister Boris Johnson said Chirac was a “formidable political leader who shaped the destiny of his nation.”
Russian President Vladimir Putin praised Chirac’s “intellect and great knowledge” and “a long-term view, defending the interests of his country.”
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 multi-polarism as a counterweight to U.S. global dominance, and defended agricultural subsidies over protests by the European Union.
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 U.S. France stopped its tests the next year when it signed the international treaty banning all nuclear explosions.
In 2002, 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.”
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 then-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% 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.
Chirac’s outspoken opposition to the U.S.-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 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 and was the first head of state to meet with U.S. President George W. Bush after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Jacques Chirac was born in Paris on Nov. 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 “L’Humanite” on the streets for a brief time.
Chirac traveled to the United States as a young man, and as president he fondly remembered hitchhiking across the country. He worked as a fork-lift operator in St. Louis and a soda jerk at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant while attending summer school at Harvard University.
Chirac served in Algeria during the independence war, which France lost, and enrolled at France’s Ecole Nationale d’Administration, the elite training ground for the French political class.
In 1956, 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 highly visible office as a power base for the next 18 years.
In recent years, Chirac was very rarely seen in public. He was visibly weak and walked with a cane in his last public appearance at a November 2014 award ceremony of his foundation, which supports peace projects.
Chirac is survived by his wife and daughter Claude. His daughter Laurence died in 2016 after a long illness.