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Thousands turn out for public tribute to late president Jacques Chirac

Kamil Zihnioglu, POOL/AFP | A guard stands near the coffin of late French president Jacques Chirac lying in state at the Saint-Louis-des-Invalides cathedral in Paris on September 29.

France held a day of public tribute for former president Jacques Chirac at Invalides on Sunday, with thousands braving wind and rain to file past his coffin and pay their final respects.

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Chirac lay in state during a public ceremony at the Invalides monument, where France honours its heroes. It is also where Napoleon Bonaparte is buried.

Many had already queued up to pay their respects at the Élysée Palace and at Paris City Hall earlier this week.

Chirac, the last French head of state to complete two terms in office, died Thursday at the age of 86. Flags were lowered Friday on buildings and monuments throughout France in his honour. Tributes have poured in from heads of state around the world this week.

A memorial service involving some 30 heads of state and a private family funeral are planned for Monday at the church of Saint-Sulpice.

James André reports from Invalides

Four decades in politics

Long the standard-bearer of France's conservative right, Chirac spent 40 years as a larger-than-life political figure.

Born in Paris in 1932, Chirac graduated from France’s prestigious École 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 (lower house of parliament) for his native Corrèze region. Quickly named to the cabinet, the young lawmaker served as a minister under a series of governments.

Chirac was first named prime minister in 1974 under President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing. The two men had an uneasy relationship and Chirac ended up resigning from the post two years later, citing Giscard d’Estaing’s unwillingness to give him authority.

His second term as prime minister during a period of "cohabitation" as the centre-right Chirac served under Socialist president François Mitterrand was an uneasy period in its own right.

Associate professor Paul Smith of the University of Notthingham on Chirac's legacy

A rocky tenure

As president from 1995-2007, Chirac was a consummate global diplomat but failed to reform the beleaguered French economy, with his administration struggling through a round of general strikes that paralysed the country in 1995.

In a speech that same year, delivered on the anniversary of 13,000 Jews being rounded up in July 1942, he became the first French leader to acknowledge France's role in the Holocaust. 

His 2002 presidential bid became a turning point, when he made it past the first round despite corruption allegations to face National Front (FN) candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen following the latter’s shock advance to the run-off

French voters and politicians rallied around the 69-year-old Chirac in a bid to prevent Le Pen from clinching the presidency – Chirac won with more than 82% of the vote. But critics never failed to point out that millions of French voters were merely settling for the less offensive candidate. 

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 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 foreign minister, Dominique de Villepin, became the face of resistance to the Iraq War after making a case against the invasion before the UN Security Council.

Chirac’s stance frayed France’s relations with the US and Britain, but it also won him legions of admirers at home and abroad.

But another domestic challenge emerged in 2005, when Chirac failed to defuse tensions between police and minority youths that exploded into riots across France.

The former president is now remembered mostly fondly despite coming under fierce criticism during his second presidential term and a 2011 corruption conviction over actions dating back to his nearly two decades as mayor of Paris.

Chirac is also well remembered in France for his recognition of the country’s responsibility for deporting thousands of Jews to Nazi death camps during the German occupation of World War II. His 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.

Chirac is survived by his wife Bernadette and two daughters.

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