The former French president Jacques Chirac, who had one of the longest political careers in Europe, has died aged 86.
For several years he had suffered from memory loss said to be linked to a form of Alzheimer’s disease or to the minor stroke that he had while in office.
Chirac, who was head of state from 1995 to 2007, boasted one of the longest continuous political careers in Europe – twice president, twice prime minister and 18 years as mayor of Paris.
Although his time as president was marked by inaction and political stagnation, and despite having left France just as divided and struggling with mounting debt, inequalities and unemployment as he had found it, his debonair persona meant that in retirement he was embraced as one of France’s favourite politicians.
Chirac will be remembered internationally for leading France’s strong opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, when approval ratings for his anti-war stance in France soared to 90%. “War is always a last resort. It is always proof of failure. It is always the worst of solutions, because it brings death and misery,” he said a week before the US-led coalition forces invaded Iraq. He warned that any occupation of Iraq would prove a “nightmare”.
One of Chirac’s greatest gestures at home was to reconcile the nation with its history by acknowledging that France as a whole was responsible for the roundup of some 76,000 Jews sent to Nazi death camps during the second world war. His vow that the “criminal folly” of the German occupation was “assisted by the French people, by the French state” lifted the last taboo of the occupation and the collaborationist Vichy regime. His apology was the first time a postwar French head of state had fully acknowledged France’s role.
Chirac will be remembered above all as a master in the art of political seduction. For decades he charmed the public with his endless handshaking, patting of cows’ backsides and shaking of dogs’ paws on his tours round France – a beer-drinking, Gitanes-smoking man of the people who was able to eat five lunches in one afternoon on the election trail.
He shook so many hands while criss-crossing France that he used to plunge his fingers into a bucket of ice at the end of the day or wear plasters to protect from the blisters he got from his powerful grip on pensioners and farmers. He had a visceral need to reach out and touch people – whether it was hugging an elderly voter or flamboyantly kissing the hand of the German chancellor, Angela Merkel.
Chirac suffered from frail health and memory loss in later life. As President, he suffered a stroke in 2005. In February 2014 he was admitted to hospital because of pains related to gout. On 10 December 2015, Chirac was hospitalised in Paris for undisclosed reasons, although his state of health didn’t “give any cause for concern”, he remained for about a week in ICU. According to his son-in-law Frederic Salat-Baroux, Chirac was again hospitalised in Paris with a lung infection on 18 September 2016.
Chirac died at his home in Paris on 26 September 2019.