Former French President Jaques Chirac Dies At 86

Sep 26, 2019
Originally published on September 26, 2019 9:42 am
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NOEL KING, HOST:

Former French President Jacques Chirac has died in Paris at the age of 86. He'd been in the hospital with a lung infection. Chirac served two terms as president from 1995 to 2007. And he was the mayor of Paris for almost 20 years. He opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, and that made him unpopular with many Americans. But as NPR's Eleanor Beardsley reports, he was one of France's most beloved presidents.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY, BYLINE: Jacques Rene Chirac spent half a century in the public eye. President of France and Paris' mayor, he also served two terms as prime minister and represented his rural district in the French Parliament for nearly 30 years. Magazine editor Franz-Olivier Giesbert wrote a thousand-page biography on Chirac.

FRANZ-OLIVIER GIESBERT: It's just an incredible man doing incredible things. You know, there was always something going on with Jacques. And he was one of the funniest politicians in France.

BEARDSLEY: Though he was born in Paris, Chirac's roots and heart were in the rural Correze region, where his family had once been farmers. Giesbert says Chirac connected with common country folk. He loved to sit around and eat and drink with them. He says people saw themselves in Chirac.

GIESBERT: The French loved him because he looked like the French.

BEARDSLEY: For Americans, Chirac may best be remembered for his fierce opposition to the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 to oust Saddam Hussein. Speaking in a CNN interview on the eve of the war, Chirac said France was simply telling America the truth, as a friend should.

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PRESIDENT JACQUES CHIRAC: (Through interpreter) I'm telling my American friends, beware. Be careful. Think it over seriously before you take action that is not necessary. And that can be very dangerous, especially in the fight against international terrorism.

BEARDSLEY: During a summer study stint at Harvard as a young man, Chirac worked flipping burgers at a Howard Johnson's restaurant. Political journalist Harold Hyman says Chirac was not anti-American, he simply believed in a multipolar world where France and Europe would play a leading role. Hyman says Chirac also thought he could talk sense into George W. Bush because he had had a good relationship with his father.

HAROLD HYMAN: And it wasn't the case. He was sort of like a jilted lover. He would've loved to have a great Franco-American relationship.

BEARDSLEY: Biographer Giesbert says Chirac did not accomplish great things during his presidency, but there were great moments, like in 1998, when France won the World Cup. And the nation came together behind its racially diverse soccer team.

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UNIDENTIFIED SPORTS ANNOUNCER: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: In 1995, 50 years after World War II, Chirac became the first president to acknowledge the country's complicity with the Nazis in deporting Jews to death camps.

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CHIRAC: (Speaking French).

BEARDSLEY: Giesbert says previous presidents - Charles de Gaulle and Francois Mitterrand - always acted as if the Vichy collaborationist regime was something foreign.

GIESBERT: And suddenly Jacques Chirac just appeared and say, well, it's us. We are responsible, too. We helped the German as a state. And that was really a shock for many of us. And I think that was a great achievement of Jacques Chirac.

BEARDSLEY: In an editorial, Le Figaro said Chirac is viewed as a unifying father figure by most French people today, though the newspaper noted that part of the outpouring of affection for him may be due to nostalgia for a less divisive time.

Eleanor Beardsley, NPR News, Paris.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE CINEMATIC ORCHESTRA FEAT. AUSTIN PERALTA'S "LAPIS") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.