Chirac: an affable leader who said 'Non' to Iraq war

Paris (AFP) –


Jacques Chirac, who died on Thursday at the age of 86, was a charismatic giant of French post-war politics whose popular touch gave him enduring appeal to voters, even after a conviction for graft.

Twice elected head of state in 1995 and 2002, his 12 years in the Elysee Palace made him France's second longest-serving president after his Socialist predecessor Francois Mitterrand.

On the international stage, Chirac helped spearhead opposition to the US-lead invasion of Iraq in 2003 -- a stance which angered the United States.

"War is always a last resort, always an admission of failure, always the worst of solutions, because it brings death and misery," he said at the time.

An instinctive conservative but capable of quickly switching positions, Chirac also served two stints as prime minister in 1974-76 and 1986-88 and was mayor of his native Paris from 1977-1995.

Winning people over came easily to the Paris-born career politician who cultivated an image as an amiable, beer-drinking, down-to-earth, slightly buffoonish figure who understood ordinary French people.

The son of a businessman father and housewife mother, he took the obvious track for any aspiring politician as a student by winning a place at the elite Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA), which has groomed a long line of French presidents.

Handsome, and with the powerful physique of the rugby player he was in his youth, Chirac moved swiftly from the ENA into politics -- starting off near the top, in 1962, as chief of staff to then president Georges Pompidou, who dubbed him "the bulldozer".

Within five years, Chirac was a junior minister and had secured a parliamentary seat in the central Correze region.

When students took to the streets of Paris in May 1968, Chirac helped negotiate a truce that avoided major bloodshed.

In 1974, at the age of 41, he was named prime minister under president Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

But his pre-presidential career was mostly marked by his 18 years as mayor of Paris from 1977, which he used as a launchpad for the presidency.

- Corruption -

It was his time at the helm of the French capital that was to result, once he had lost his presidential immunity, in a conviction for embezzlement and misuse of public funds.

A Paris court ruled in 2011 that the former mayor had colluded in the creation of 28 fake jobs for party workers and sentenced him to a two-year suspended prison term.

By then, Chirac was already suffering from a degenerative neurological disorder that blighted his final years and, with the agreement of prosecutors, he was spared the humiliation of appearing in court.

The trial laid bare how he had run the French capital as a personal fiefdom in which hundreds of thousands of euros could be squandered on extravagant catering and apartments owned by city hall were let out at rock-bottom rents to his cronies.

But the revelations had little impact on his standing with the French public and, perhaps helped by sympathy over his failing health, he emerged from the case more popular than ever.

- A common touch -

After two failed bids for the presidency in 1981 and 1988, Chirac finally succeeded in winning top office at his third attempt, in 1995.

But two years later he gambled on dissolving parliament in the hope of securing a mandate for free-market economic reforms.

It proved a miscalculation, with the electorate swinging left, forcing Chirac to see out the rest of his first term in a paralysing "cohabition" with a Socialist-dominated parliament.

The 2002 election was handed to him on a plate when he found himself in a second-round contest with far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen and the electorate rallied massively behind him.

His second term saw France grapple with debt and competitiveness problems, which plague it to this day.

While his standing internationally grew with his opposition to the Iraq war in 2003, Chirac's second term was clouded by the drip-drip of revelations about his time as mayor.

A satirical TV puppet show portrayed him as a caped anti-hero called "Super-liar".

Despite such scorn, Chirac always seemed to retain the public's affection, particularly among farmers whose causes he defended with zeal.

He also had a passion for Asian culture, from Sumo wrestling to Chinese art. One of his legacies is the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, showcasing indigenous art from Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific.

His reputation as a ladies' man -- he once said "I never overdid it" -- did not make life easy for his wife Bernadette, an aristocrat he met at university and married soon afterwards.

The couple had two daughters, Laurence, who died in 2016, and Claude, and they also adopted a Vietnamese girl, Anh Dao Traxel.

The Chiracs' marriage endured to the end but Bernadette confirmed in 2001 that it had been tested to breaking point.

"I warned him often enough: the day Napoleon left Josephine, he lost everything," she said.