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Jacques Chirac, French president who championed European identity, is dead at 86

President Jacques Chirac of France during an interview in his office in Paris, Jan. 29, 2007. Chirac died on Sept. 26, 2019, at his home in Paris. He was 86. (Ed Alcock/The New York Times)
September 26, 2019 01:13 pm Updated: September 26, 2019 01:14 pm

Jacques Chirac, who molded the legacy of Charles de Gaulle into a personal power base that made him one of the dominant leaders of France across three decades and a vocal advocate of European unity, has died. He was 86.

His death was confirmed Thursday by the Fondation Chirac in Paris.

Chirac was elected to two consecutive terms as president, beginning in 1995, having already served as prime minister under centrist and Socialist presidents.

At his death, he was most remembered for his defiant stand against the U.S.-led war in Iraq, his ability to preside over a state in which power was divided between the left and the right — comity that is hardly imaginable today — and his championing the European Union.

His vision, he argued in 2000, was “not for a United States of Europe, but for a United Europe of States.”

Chirac had also been a highly visible mayor of Paris for 18 years, using that office as a springboard into national politics. Only years later would his mayoralty emerge as the source of a damaged reputation: In 2011, he was convicted of embezzlement and misusing public funds to finance his political party while running the city.

Historically, French politicians have seldom been tarnished by their financial peccadilloes, and that was the case with Chirac: He received a two-year suspended sentence, with his legacy largely intact. His presidency is generally recalled warmly in France, with many saying that he represented the nation well and in a manner that was “presidential.”

Pascal Perrineau, a professor of political science at the Paris School of International Affairs, a part of Sciences Po, said there were three main reasons for Chirac’s popularity. One was that he was able “to implant the idea of a president who is an ordinary person: a president who goes jogging, a president who rides a Vespa.”

“Second, he was able to bridge the left-right divide,” Perrineau added. And third, “he presided over France in a relatively good time.”

To his opponents, Chirac — a tall, energetic, loquacious, but not quite eloquent man — was a political chameleon, able to adjust his policies according to his reading of what voters wanted (which did not make him much different from other French politicians of his day). But almost all agreed that he was basically a conservative, suspicious of the country’s powerful leftist labor unions and friendly to private enterprise.

As president, Chirac drifted away from a Gaullist belief in French self-sufficiency. Rather, he pressed hard for a new federal Europe, with the European Union assuming more and more power and, over time, eroding the sovereignty of member states.

His goal was the same as that of all post-World War II French leaders, including Charles de Gaulle and François Mitterrand: to prevent another war by hugging Germany — fraternally and self-protectively — in a tight economic and political union.

Yet when it came time to vote on a new constitution for Europe, a step that would have cemented the union, he did not campaign for it convincingly, and it lost in France, presaging the difficulties that the European Union would face in later years.

Before taking control of the Gaullist party in 1976, Chirac dallied with the Communist and Socialist Parties. But as an energetic young bureaucrat, he became the favorite of President Georges Pompidou, who had been de Gaulle’s anointed successor in 1969. A year earlier, Chirac had approved of the government crackdown on the student riots and the occupation of the Sorbonne, although he had no official role in it.

As mayor of Paris, starting in 1977, he had a spotlighted stage from which to begin a national political career. With a huge staff and budget, he kept the city humming with festivals and exhibitions.

He boasted of an array of international acquaintances, describing Saddam Hussein and the Chinese leader, Deng Xiaoping, as his friends. He often upstaged his own president or prime minister, welcoming prominent guests like Pope John Paul II, President Ronald Reagan and the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev and giving lavish dinners at City Hall.

By the time he left the mayor’s office in 1995, there was increasing evidence that corruption and political skulduggery had been widespread during his tenure. But despite his later conviction in court, there were no allegations while he was in office that he had enriched himself. There were suspicions, however, that he must have been aware of the corrupt schemes of his associates, particularly of Jean Tiberi, who succeeded him as mayor.

Chirac had a ferocious temper. At a French-British summit meeting in 1988, when Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher sought a cut in French agricultural subsidies, her obstinacy prompted an obscene outburst from Chirac. Even French-speaking Britons in the room had to consult their dictionaries to determine just how gravely he had insulted her. The next day, the British tabloid The Sun demanded in a banner headline, “Say Sorry, Rude Frog!”

But it was an otherwise winning popular touch that endeared Chirac to the French. An article in the newspaper Libération, which was often critical of him, conceded, “Even those who do not like him can acknowledge that the president of the Republic is a warm, demonstrative man, quick to become involved in individual problems and to help those hit by trouble.”

Much of the work he did to help the handicapped, with foundations and facilities, went deliberately unpublicized. “He had this incredible capacity to be interested in other people,” Perrineau said. “I saw him follow the dossier of people who were ill, and he never wanted them to know it.”

In 2000, Chirac wrote that “people more and more have the feeling that their governments are cut off from their daily lives.”

“That is why I travel as often as possible to all parts of France,” he added, “to listen to people about their worries, their hopes.”

Jacques René Chirac was born in the Latin Quarter of Paris on Nov. 29, 1932, a few years after his father, Abel, then a minor bank official, and his mother, Marie Louise Valette, had moved to the capital from a village in central France.

In 1950, at 18, Jacques went to sea on a tramp steamer running coal between Dunkirk, France, and Algiers, the capital of the rebellious French colony of Algeria. Encouraged by the captain, he began studying to become a merchant marine officer. But a few months later, his father showed up at the Dunkirk dock and took him home to enter the National School of Political Science, one of France’s most prestigious colleges.

As a student, Chirac attended a summer course at Harvard in 1953 and worked at a Howard Johnson’s in Boston, starting as a dishwasher and working his way up to counterman. He became engaged to a Radcliffe woman, whose father wrote him an angry letter telling him, basically, to get lost. From there, Chirac went to California and Louisiana, writing a long paper on the Port of New Orleans.

On his return to Paris, he became engaged to his longtime girlfriend, Bernadette Chodron de Courcel, who was from a wealthy family in Corrèze, southwestern France. They were married, and she was later elected a regional councilor.

Their younger daughter, Claude, became her father’s communications director when he won the presidency. Bernadette Chirac and Claude survive, as does a grandson. An elder daughter, Laurence, died in April 2016 after at least one suicide attempt.

In September 2005, Chirac had a stroke that affected his eyesight and put him in a hospital bed. Though he recovered and resumed his duties, he announced early in 2007 that he would not seek re-election. His law-and-order interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, succeeded him.

Chirac left a remarkable legacy in the form of the Quai Branly Museum, which was renamed the Quai Branly Jacques Chirac Museum in 2016. It holds an eclectic mix of art, sculptures and decorative pieces, many from France’s former colonies but also from pre-Columbian societies and early Japanese ones, for which Chirac had a passion.

At his death, he had largely disappeared from public view. He was hospitalized several times. He had “memory problems” and would no longer make public appearances, his wife said in 2014.

“I have had an interesting life, full of events, and I am happy with it,” he said in an interview in 2000. He dismissed any notion that there was a secret, private Jacques Chirac. Asked by a reporter, “Who is Jacques Chirac?,” he replied: “Basically, it’s of little importance who he is in private, intimate life. It is only the political personality that should interest us.”

He added: “When one assumes a political responsibility, the essential is that he makes himself understood. But if he can make himself loved, so much the better.”