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, died on Thursday at his home in Paris. He was 86.
His death was confirmed by the Fondation Chirac in Paris.
Chirac was elected to two consecutive terms as president, beginning in 1995, having already been 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 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 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 in an interview that 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 Paris, as his father began to rise as a banker, Jacques, then an only child, was spoiled by his mother, whose first child had died in infancy eight years before Jacques’ birth. When he came home from school he would find a piece of candy she had left out for him, its wrapper already opened to save him the trouble. She would ask visitors to wear white shirts, believing they were less likely to carry germs into the house and imperil her son.
In their apartment on the fashionable Rue de Seine, his father, who thought Jacques was lazy at school, would force him to listen to readings from Marcel Pagnol, Charles Baudelaire and Victor Hugo. Jacques went on to an elite secondary school in St. Cloud, west of Paris.
By the start of World War II, his father was a key adviser to Marcel Bloch, a founder of the aircraft maker Dassault, which produced the Mystère and Mirage fighter planes.
In 1950, at 18, Jacques went to sea on a tramp steamer running coal between Dunkirk, France, and Algiers, the capital of Algeria, the rebellious French possession. 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 prestigious National School of Political Science.
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 about 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 the late 1950s, Chirac attended the National School of Administration, which has produced several prime ministers, and did well there. He then obtained an army commission and became a lieutenant in charge of a unit of 32 men that saw combat in the Algerian war for independence. In one instance he helped rescue an ambushed unit.
The war was a defining experience. “For me,” he said in 1975, “it was a time of very great freedom” and “the only time I had the feeling of command.”
Back in civilian life, he took a job in the main government accounting office, where he caught the attention of Pompidou, then the prime minister. He called Chirac “my bulldozer.”
“If I told Chirac that this tree is putting me in the shade,” he said, “he would cut it down in five minutes.”
By 1974, Chirac had become a member of Parliament and a rising star in the faltering Gaullist party, which had been leaderless since the retirement of de Gaulle in 1969.
President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, a centrist, made Chirac prime minister, heading a government coalition of rightist and centrist parties. But the style of the two clashed. Giscard d’Estaing was an aristocratic intellectual, Chirac a less-polished, hard-driving politician. He quit as prime minister in 1976 and began his own march toward the presidency.
The first task was to weaken Giscard d’Estaing. He did this by competing with him for right-center votes in the first round of the 1981 presidential election. The split helped elect the Socialist candidate, Mitterrand, who served two seven-year terms, until 1994.
Mitterrand’s ambitious socialist agenda, including nationalizing banks and major industries, largely failed, leading the center-right to take control of the national legislature in 1986. Mitterrand was forced to name a center-right prime minister. He chose Chirac.
Mitterrand defeated Chirac for the presidency in 1988 and later chose Chirac’s old friend Édouard Balladur as prime minister. Chirac remained as head of the Gaullists and mayor of Paris, but his career seemed thwarted.
But in 1995, he made one of the most surprising comebacks in French politics. With polls showing Balladur likely to defeat the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, Chirac kept campaigning, pointing out that Balladur had promised not to run for the presidency when he became prime minister.
Chirac began to look like a leader again, attacking Balladur for his record and Jospin for his ideology. He perfected, one analyst said, “the art of being vague,” and won the presidency.
His term opened with a design to improve France’s image and enhance its role as a world power. Chirac shook a righteous finger at Washington and London, telling them to be more resolute about sending troops to end the war in Bosnia. But he made it clear he bore no Gallic grudges against the United States.
“France is not worried about a powerful United States,” he said in an interview, in English. “In the world of today, it is a real necessity. I don’t like the idea of presenting Europe and the United States as competitors. We are partners.”
Nevertheless, that same year, 1995, he angered most of the world’s governments by announcing that France would conduct nuclear tests at the Mururoa Atoll in French Polynesia.
After taking office, Chirac declared that he intended to reintegrate French military forces into the NATO structure, a project (which ultimately became bogged down) that the United States had wanted since de Gaulle removed them and kicked the NATO headquarters out of France in 1966.
Less than 10 years later, however, in a speech at the United Nations in New York, his foreign minister announced that France would not join the U.S.-led coalition attacking Iraq and denounced the use of force.
Chirac’s ambivalent approach to Franco-American relations endured, though the United States’ expressions of solidarity over terrorism on French soil repaired some of the bonds that were attenuated by the war in Iraq.
Chirac was the first French leader to acknowledge that some French people were responsible for sending 75,000 Jews to death camps during World War II. Before his statement, in 1995, French leaders had said that only the Nazi occupiers bore responsibility.
“These dark hours forever sully our history and are an insult to our past and our traditions,” Chirac said. “Yes, the criminal folly of the occupiers was seconded by the French, by the French state.”
Domestically, he announced cutbacks in social security benefits that led to weeks of strikes, which the French seemed to endure out of sympathy with the strikers. The cutbacks, Chirac argued, were needed if France was to meet European Union standards for participating in the unified currency system of the euro. A few months after the strikes, polls showed him doing relatively well.
But those polling results would impel him to the worst mistake of his career: He called an early election in May 1997 to solidify the center-right’s control of the National Assembly, the lower house of Parliament. The Socialists won the legislative majority.
In 2002, disaffected by government scandals, French voters shocked the political establishment in the first round of presidential voting in April by giving Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Front, a second-place finish with 16.9% of the vote. Chirac won 19.9%, and Jospin was third, with 16.2%.
But Chirac easily won a May runoff election, with 82%, and his center-right allies won parliamentary elections in June.
After the 2002 victory, Chirac appointed as prime minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, a regional leader who was little known on the national stage. Under Raffarin, the National Assembly approved a law banning the wearing of Islamic headscarves and other religious symbols in public schools. Despite threats from Islamic extremists, who abducted two French journalists in Iraq, the law went into effect on Sept. 20, 2004.
The next year, in a national referendum, France turned its back on a half-century of European history by decisively rejecting a constitution for Europe, plunging the country into political disarray and jeopardizing both Chirac’s position and the cause of European unity.
Though many believed Chirac should have assumed full responsibility for the defeat and resigned, he resorted to an old French presidential ploy, ousting the affable but unpopular Raffarin and appointing his longtime protégé Dominique de Villepin as prime minister in an effort to restore confidence in the government.
In a televised address, Chirac said the top priority of the new government would be job creation, an acknowledgment that opposition to the constitution was motivated as much by anxiety over the French economy as it was by fears of an enlarged Europe.
Criticism of de Villepin’s appointment came swiftly, as the left and even some on the right said that Chirac was out of touch with his electorate. His approval ratings plummeted.
Chirac confronted one of his most serious domestic challenges in 2005, when the suburbs of Paris and other French cities were roiled by three weeks of riots, which started after two boys running away from the police at a power station were electrocuted and died.
His government declared a state of emergency, but Chirac barely spoke in public during the crisis, contributing to the sense of unease.
The riots were rooted in long-standing feelings of discrimination and lack of economic opportunities in the heavily immigrant suburbs, as well as anger over police harassment. Chirac, who had run on the promise of healing social divisions, admitted his failure to quickly address the problems, many of which persist.
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 reelection. His law-and-order interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, succeeded him.
On Thursday, French officials said a national day of mourning had been declared for Monday, when a service will be held at noon in the Church of Saint Sulpice in Paris, not far from Chirac’s home. On Thursday night, the presidential palace was to open its doors to the public to allow people to write in condolence books, and President Emmanuel Macron was to give a televised speech to honor Chirac.
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 had been 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.”