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Jacques Chirac, a giant of French politics, dies at 86

Patrick Kovarik/AFP pool/AFP | President Jacques Chirac delivers his farewell address from the Élysée Palace on May 15, 2007.

Former French President Jacques Chirac, a major force in French politics who opposed the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq, died in Paris on Thursday at the age of 86.

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A seasoned politician, Chirac’s career included two presidential terms, two stints as prime minister and nearly two decades as mayor of Paris.

Charming, statuesque and a consummate political animal, Chirac was a presence on the French political arena for more than four decades. But he is best known internationally for his final term at the Élysée presidential palace, a five-year period that proved extraordinary from start to finish.

Chirac is probably best remembered in France for his 2002 presidential bid, when the centre-right politician made it past the first round despite corruption allegations to face National Front (FN) candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen in the run-off following the latter’s shock advance. 

French voters and politicians who were expecting Socialist incumbent, Lionel Jospin, to make it through to the second round, rallied around the 69-year-old Chirac in a bid to prevent Le Pen from clinching the presidency. Chirac won the runoff with more than 82% of the vote, a tally that critics never failed to underscore was achieved by millions of Frenchmen and women holding their noses and voting for the less offensive candidate. “Pas de choix” ("No choice") was the refrain as the French sniffed about having to choose between voting for a "crook" or voting for a fascist.

Chirac was barely a year into his second presidential term when he was faced with the biggest diplomatic challenge of his career as then US president George W. Bush attempted to build a “coalition of the willing” against Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq.

The French leader was resolutely unwilling to join the coalition, emerging as a formidable voice of opposition against a military invasion. His Gallic “non” frayed France’s relations with the US and Britain, but it also won him legions of admirers at home and abroad.

Corruption allegations, including charges dating back to his time as Paris mayor, however continued to dog Chirac until the end of his term and after. Nevertheless the rakishly handsome politician retained a measure of popularity. When he left the presidential office in 2007, one of France’s leading cartoonists quipped, "I'll miss Chirac in the same way you'd miss your granddad who used to nick the cash you left in the kitchen."

From prime minister to president

Born in Paris in 1932, Chirac’s father was a bank manager who went on to become managing director of the Dassault aircraft company. His mother was a housewife.

He graduated from France’s prestigious Ecole nationale d’administration (ENA), which trains the country’s top civil servants, before volunteering to fight in the Algerian War.

Chirac began his political career in the 1960s when he was appointed head of the personal staff of Gaullist Prime Minister Georges Pompidou. In 1967, at Pompidou’s bidding, Chirac ran and won a seat in the National Assembly for his native Corrèze region.

But it was under President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing that he was first appointed to high office when he was nominated prime minister in 1974. The two men had an uneasy relationship though and Chirac ended up resigning from the post two years later citing Giscard d’Estaing’s unwillingness to give him authority.

The centre-right politician’s second term as prime minister under Socialist President François Mitterrand -- a period known as “cohabitation” in France -- saw an uneasy cohabitation best encapsulated during the 1988 presidential race.

Opening a televised debate, Chirac began, “Permit me to say to you that tonight I am not the Prime Minister and you are not the President of the Republic. We are two equal candidates who are submitting themselves to the judgment of the French people. Permit me then to call you Mr. Mitterrand.” His opponent, the Socialist incumbent promptly replied, “But you are entirely right, Mr. Prime Minister.” Mitterrand won the race.

Finally in 1995, with Mitterrand ailing with cancer and out of the race, Chirac won his first presidential election, a position he held until 2007.

The Bosnian challenge

Chirac’s two presidential terms left a profound mark on international relations -- not just because of the dramatic events that unfolded during that period, but also because another phase of awkward cohabitation with a Socialist prime minister meant that foreign policy was one of the few areas where the president could manoeuvre freely.

Barely days into his presidency, with the Bosnian War raging, Chirac faced a diplomatic challenge when Serb forces in May 1995 captured French troops serving under a UN peacekeeping mandate on the frontline Vrbanja bridge.

Chirac’s muscular response, which included the deployment of a French rapid reaction force, worked as a message to the Serb forces that UN peacekeeping mission UNPROFOR’s attitude to the conflict had changed.

Months later, Chirac hosted the signing of the Dayton Peace Accord -- which was initialed in Dayton, Ohio – that brought an end to the Bosnian War.

A bulldozer in the Middle East

Inside the Beltway in Washington DC, the new French president came to be called “the bulldozer,” a moniker first adopted by Pompidou that apparently best characterised Chirac’s personality.

It was on public display in October 1996 during a visit to Jerusalem’s Old City, where Chirac had deliberately refused to be accompanied by Israeli municipal authorities to underscore France’s adherence to the UN commitment on the status of the Holy City.

Hemmed in by a heavy-handed Israeli security presence in the Old City’s crowded streets, Chirac famously let rip in an outburst that immediately turned him into a hero in the Arab world.

“What do you want – me to go back to my plane and go back to France?” Chirac exploded in English to the Israeli security guards. “Then let them go. This is not the method. That is provocation,” he roared.

News of the outburst travelled across the world, cementing Chirac’s reputation as a “friend of the Arabs” and granting him unprecedented leeway in his dealings with Palestinian leader Yasser Arafat.

While the Palestinians regarded the French president as an objective Middle East negotiator, unlike his US counterparts, Chirac is remembered in France for his historic recognition of the country’s responsibility for deporting thousands of Jews to Nazi death camps during the German occupation in World War II.

Chirac’s landmark July 1995 speech put an end to decades of official denials and equivocations of the role played by French citizens and the state in the deportations, marking a turning point in France’s post-war reading of history.

Eight years later, Chirac was to make history again when he stood up to Washington’s war drums calling for a military intervention in Iraq. Chirac’s threat to veto a US-introduced UN resolution calling for regime change in Iraq put severe pressure on France’s relations with a key ally.

The Bush administration’s disproportionate “you’re either with us or against us” response rattled French businesses, but Chirac was resolute in standing up to the latest challenge.

In time, French-US relations eased, but Chirac will be forever remembered as the leader who said “non” to war even if it meant putting France’s relations with a key ally at stake.

Chirac is survived by his wife Bernadette and two daughters.

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