Jacques Chirac, French President Who Championed European Identity, Is Dead at 86


Jacques Chirac, French President Who Championed European Identity, Is Dead at 86

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. He was 86.

His death was confirmed by the Fondation Chirac in Paris.

Mr. 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 United States-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.”

To his opponents, Mr. 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.

In 2000, Mr. 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’s 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.

Their younger daughter, Claude, became her father’s communications director when he won the presidency. Mrs. 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, Mr. 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” adding, “involved in the life of the men I commanded, it was 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 Mr. Pompidou, then the prime minister. He called Mr. 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, Mr. 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 Mr. Chirac prime minister, heading a government coalition of rightist and centrist parties. But the style of the two clashed. Mr. Giscard d’Estaing was an aristocratic intellectual, Mr. 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 Mr. 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, Mr. Mitterrand, who served two seven-year terms, until 1994.

Mr. 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. Mr. Mitterrand was forced to name a center-right prime minister. He chose Mr. Chirac.

Mr. Mitterrand defeated Mr. Chirac for the presidency in 1988 and later chose Mr. Chirac’s old friend Édouard Balladur as prime minister. Mr. 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 Mr. Balladur likely to defeat the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, Mr. Chirac kept campaigning, pointing out that Mr. Balladur had promised not to run for the presidency when he became prime minister.

Mr. Chirac began to look like a leader again, attacking Mr. Balladur for his record and Mr. Jospin for his ideology. He perfected, one analyst said, “the art of being vague,” and won the presidency.

His term opened with a clear design to improve France’s image and enhance its role as a world power. Mr. 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.

“These dark hours forever sully our history and are an insult to our past and our traditions,” Mr. Chirac said. “Yes, the criminal folly of the occupiers was seconded by the French, by the French state.”

“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.”


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