Europe

Jacques Chirac: Former French president dies aged 86

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Media captionSome of the key moments in Jacques Chirac's career

Jacques Chirac, the former French president who championed the European Union, but whose later years were blighted by corruption scandals, has died aged 86.

"President Jacques Chirac died this morning surrounded by his family, peacefully," his son-in-law told AFP.

Chirac served two terms as president and twice as PM, and took France into the single European currency.

French President Emmanuel Macron hailed Chirac as a "great Frenchman".

The French National Assembly observed a minute's silence in his memory.

A towering figure in French politics for five decades, Chirac will be remembered for his opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, his pragmatic statesmanship and his advocacy of the European Union.

In a televised address from the Elysee Palace, Mr Macron mourned his death, calling him a president who "embodied a certain idea of France".

"We French have lost a statesman whom we loved as much as he loved us," Mr Macron said. "Whether we share, or not, his ideas or what he fought for, we all recognise ourselves in this man who resembled us, and brought us together."

Mr Macron's office said a national day of mourning will take place on Monday, when a mass at the Saint-Sulpice church in Paris will be held.

On Thursday night, the illuminations at the Eiffel Tower will be switched off two hours earlier than usual in honour of Chirac, a former Paris mayor.

Who has paid tribute?

Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission and former Luxembourg prime minister, said he was "moved and devastated" to learn the news.

"Europe is not only losing a great statesman, but the president is losing a great friend," he said in a statement.

German Chancellor Angela Merkel said she was "very sad" to hear about the death of Chirac, who she described as an "outstanding partner and friend".

Former French President Fran├žois Hollande also paid homage to Chirac: "I know that today, the French people, whatever their convictions, have just lost a friend," he said in a statement.

Another former French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, said on learning the news: "A part of my life has disappeared today", adding that Chirac "embodied a France faithful to its universal values".

A known admirer of Chirac, Russian President Vladimir Putin, praised the "wise and far-sighted statesman" for his "intellect and huge knowledge".

British prime ministers past and present were among those to pay their respect, with John Major and Boris Johnson both hailing his political prowess.

French television stations are playing wall-to-wall tributes, and it is moving to be taken back once again to that long epoch in French history when Jacques Chirac was at the centre of it all.

There he is as a chisel-chinned prime minister in the 1970s; later in a flared three-piece suit, announcing the creation of his Gaullist party; then as president upbraiding Israeli soldiers in Jerusalem; or glad-handing at the annual farm show in Paris.

The years have passed and no-one particularly wants to dwell on the many failings of the man. No mention in the tributes of the corruption and the flip-flops.

What remains for most is the memory of a likeable man, a man of culture (at least that was the image he cultivated), and a president who acted like a French president is supposed to - that is, projecting the permanent conviction that France, of course, is the best place in the world.

What is his legacy?

Chirac won domestic and international plaudits for his fierce opposition to French involvement in the Iraq War, presciently warning it would prove a "nightmare". "War is always a last resort. It is always proof of failure," Chirac said, in comments days before the war started.

In 1995, Chirac became the first French leader to recognise the country's role in the deportation of Jews to death camps during World War Two.

After winning the 1995 presidential election on a platform of healing the "social rift", his promised economic reforms were considered piecemeal.

Among his major domestic political reforms was a reduction of the presidential term of office from seven to five years, and the abolition of compulsory military service.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Chirac, pictured here with former President Francois Hollande, was staunchly opposed to the Iraq War

Described by some as a political chameleon, by others as the "bulldozer", Chirac was seen as a leader who could bridge the gap between left and right.

As president, he pressed for a more federal Europe within the European Union.

In the 2000s, Chirac championed the European project and an EU constitution, which was later rejected in a poll by the majority of French voters.

Who is Jacques Chirac?

Born in 1932, Chirac was the son of a bank manager. A graduate of Harvard University, he began his career as a high-level civil servant before entering politics.

He served as head of state from 1995 to 2007 - making him France's second longest serving post-war president after his immediate Socialist predecessor Francois Mitterrand.

Image copyright Reuters
Image caption Chirac, pictured here in 2006, was an enthusiastic champion of the European Union

Chirac's health steadily deteriorated after he stepped down until his death on Thursday.

In 2005, he suffered a stroke, and in 2014 his wife Bernadette said he would no longer speak in public, noting he had memory trouble.

Chirac also served as French prime minister twice, from 1974 to 1976 and from 1986 to 1988.

What were the corruption scandals?

Chirac was beset by a series of corruption scandals dating back to his tenure as the mayor of Paris between 1977 and 1995. He and his entourage were accused of using city funds to pay for his political party, the RPR.

A ruling by the country's constitutional council in 1999 gave the president blanket immunity from prosecution while in office. But in 2011 he was convicted of diverting public funds while serving as mayor, a ruling Chirac rejected.

He was found guilty and given a suspended sentence of two years, but remained popular despite his conviction.

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