Former French President Jacques Chirac, who led France from 1995 to 2007, has died at the age of 86, his family said on Thursday.
Energetic, engaging and passionate, Chirac had been at the centre of French politics for nearly half a century and had dealings with every world leader since Leonid Brezhnev ruled the Soviet Union.
Chirac was twice president, twice prime minister and spent 18 years as the mayor of Paris. In 2002, Chirac fought off far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen – the father of Marine Le Pen, the president of the National Rally party – in the second round of a presidential election.
The president of the European Commission and former Luxembourg premier,
Jean-Claude Juncker, was “moved and devastated” to learn of Chirac’s
“Europe is not only losing a great statesman but the president is losing a great friend,” European Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva quoted Juncker as saying.
Juncker wants to “pay tribute and honour his extensive lifelong work, and his legacy for France and the European Union will stay with us forever,” she added.
“Even though one could have prepared for such a tragic moment, the president has no words to express his grief and we’ll be publishing shortly a longer declaration.”
During his 12 years as the president, Chirac ended compulsory military service, stood firm against the increasingly popular far right and was the first president to acknowledge that France’s Vichy regime had assisted the Nazis in World War II.
Despite many ups and downs, he has remained a popular figure with a solid base of affection.
“For French people of my age, he has always been with us,” said Jacques Reland of the Global Policy Institute, speaking to Al Jazeera from Saint-Malo. “He started his career under General De Gaulle, and ended as president of the republic. He has always been part of our political landscape.
“In the mind of the French people, he will be remembered as the man who opposed the Iraq war. We are thankful, left and right, for Jacques Chirac to have stood up to George W Bush at that time.
“He was a man of the people. He liked to drink a lot, to eat a lot. He was very friendly – everyone who has come across him said ‘he’s a nice guy – I don’t agree with him politically, but he’s a good bloke’, as the British would say.
“He went from being a swashbuckler to being regarded as a wise old man who had made mistakes in his career.”
A poll once said he was the politician most French people would like to have dinner with.
He also played an important role in ending the civil war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s and won widespread popularity in the Arab world for the way he stood up to George W Bush, the US president, over the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
His career was marked by policy changes, which won him the nickname the ‘Chameleon Bonaparte’ or ‘La Girouette’ (the weather vane).
At one point, he fiercely opposed the EU, then supported it; he used to champion US-style free-market economics, then promoted protectionism.
It took 53 years for France to recognise its role in the Holocaust. In 1995, Chirac apologised on behalf of the French police officers and civil servants who served at the time. Until that moment, the official line was that France or the French republic bore no responsibility and all blame should be directed at the Vichy government – a stance considered to be anti-Semitic.
“Yes, the criminal folly of the occupiers was seconded by the French, by the French state,” he said.
“France, on that day, committed an irreparable act. It failed to keep its word and delivered those under its protection to their executioners.”