Jacques Chirac, Former French President, Dies At 86

Jacques Chirac, who served two terms as President of France and was a strong opponent of the Iraq War, has died.

Jacques Chirac, who served as President from 1995 through 2007 during which time he perhaps became best known for his opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq, has died at the age of 86:

Jacques Chirac, a two-term French president who was the first leader to acknowledge France’s role in the Holocaust and defiantly opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, died Thursday at age 86.

His son-in-law Frederic Salat-Baroux told The Associated Press that Chirac died “peacefully, among his loved ones.” He did not give a cause of death, though Chirac had had repeated health problems since leaving office in 2007.

His death was announced to lawmakers sitting in France’s National Assembly, and members held a minute of silence. Mourners brought flowers and 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 12-year presidency and decades in politics.

In a rare homage to Chirac, President Emmanuel Macron, a centrist, planned a nationally televised speech Wednesday evening in his honor.

Chirac was long the standard-bearer of France’s conservative right, and mayor of Paris for nearly two decades. He was nicknamed “Le Bulldozer” early in his career for his determination and ambition. As president from 1995-2007 he was a consummate global diplomat but failed to reform the 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 France’s part.

“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 personally and politically humiliated by the defeat.

His popularity didn’t fully recover until after he left office in 2007, handing power to protege-turned-rival Nicolas Sarkozy, who praised his predecessor Thursday in a tweeted statement. Chirac, he said, “defended with panache the very particular place of France in the great international disorder” of the post-Cold War era.

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. ‘

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 multipolarism as a counterweight to U.S. global dominance, and defended agricultural subsidies over protests by the European Union.

In 2002, he presciently made a dramatic call for action against climate change, raising awareness at a time when the world did not seem to notice, or care.

“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 that the 21st century must not become “the century of humanity’s crime against life itself.”

(…)

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 percent 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.

(…)

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, just before heading to Algeria, Chirac married Bernadette Chodron de Courcel, the niece of a former de Gaulle aide and herself involved in local politics in the central farming region of Correze, where Chirac spent much of his youth. They had two daughters, Laurence and Claude, who became his presidential spokeswoman.

He worked his way up the political ladder and was named premier in 1974 by President Valery Giscard d’Estaing at the age of 41.

A personality clash with Giscard d’Estaing led Chirac to resign, but he quickly assumed the presidency of the conservative political party he refounded as the Rally for the Republic. He became mayor of Paris in 1977 and used the highly visible office as a power base for the next 18 years.

Internationally, Chirac became perhaps best known for his efforts to end decades of French isolation from its NATO partners and to reintegrate French forces into the NATO alliance. That process, which began not long after Chirac took office in 1995, was not a smooth or easy one and was derailed to some extent a less than a decade later due to Chirac’s refusal support the U.S. led war in Iraq, a move that led to a split between the two countries that wasn’t fully healed until well after the war had ended. Chirac defended that decision years later and, in the end, he was proven correct. Unfortunately, neither his American allies nor other members of NATO realized just how correct he was until it was too late.

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Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug holds a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010. Before joining OTB, he wrote at Below The BeltwayThe Liberty Papers, and United Liberty Follow Doug on Twitter | Facebook

Comments

  1. Neil Hudelson says:

    Going to eat some Freedom Fries in his honor.

  2. de stijl says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    I will Freedom kiss someone tomorrow.