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Jacques Chirac, former French president, dies aged 86

Jacques Chirac, former French president, dies aged 86:

Head of state from 1995-2007 led the opposition to the Iraq war and was the first president to acknowledge France’s role in the Holocaust.

The former French president Jacques Chirac, a self-styled affable rogue who had one of the longest political careers in Europe, has died aged 86.

Jacques Chirac speaks with George W. Bush and Tony Blair, right, looks on during the G8 summit in 2005. Photograph: Patrick Kovarik/AP

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.

Chirac with Claude Pompidou, widow of Georges Pompidou, in September 1999. Photograph: EPA

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 was much mocked, often satirised and once nicknamed “Superliar”. After a historic trial in 2011, he became the first former president to be convicted of corruption following embezzlement charges in a party funding scandal when he was mayor of Paris. Yet he was seen to embody the French president’s role as republican monarch with a kind of panache that Nicolas Sarkozy and François Hollande would later be found by the public to be lacking.

Politically he was known as the “weathervane”, for his ability to shift as it suited him. He went from championing state control in the 1970s to Ronald Reagan’s free-market liberalism in the 1980s. When he was elected president in 1995, he shocked the world by resuming nuclear testing in atoll explosions in the South Pacific, then took to the stage as an eco-champion at the 2002 Earth summit, warning: “Our house is burning while we look elsewhere.” He went from virulent eurosceptic in the late 1970s to staunch euro-defender 10 years later.

Jacques Chirac and Margaret Thatcher meet in Paris, in 1975. Photograph: SIPA/REX/Shutterstock

During more than 43 years in politics, Chirac was described as a “bulldozer” and “killer” of rivals. Born to well-off but progressive parents in Paris, what really marked him was his military service on the frontline during the Algerian war – he was the last French president to have direct experience of combat and it left him both a fan of military strategy and cautious about war.

He was a figure in French political life from the early 1960s, starting as an adviser to the prime minister George Pompidou, becoming an MP in rural Corrèze and then a minister. Before he finally became president in 1995, he founded a political party, the Gaullist Rally for the Republic, served twice as prime minister and failed twice at a presidential election. It was his ability to take knocks and get up again that proved part of his charm.

When Chirac became president in 1995, he promised to heal the “social fracture”, the crippling unemployment, division and inequalities that plagued France. But instead, his government’s contested pension reform and planned austerity package of social security cuts prompted up to 2 million people to take to the streets, paralysing France in the worst strikes since May 1968. His term was then hamstrung by his disastrous decision to call parliamentary elections in 1997 in a bid to boost his support. The Socialists won, forcing Chirac into uncomfortable power-sharing.

In 2002, he was re-elected president with 82% of the vote after the Front National’s Jean-Marie Le Pen shocked the nation by getting into the final round run-off. Chirac won because much of the leftwing electorate voting for him in order to stop the far-right leader. He later said one of his biggest regrets was not having formed a mixed national-unity government with ministers from all political sides. Instead, he stuck to his own brand of centre-right politics. In 2002 he agreed common agricultural policy payments with Germany, securing his popularity.

At home, he was most criticised for failing to steward change in France, avoiding reforms, and allowing inequalities to fester, symbolised by the 2005 urban riots on housing estates across France. The same year he called a referendum on approving the proposed EU constitution but then failed to sell the idea to the electorate, who voted no. It was a devastating blow. His popularity ratings near the end of his term were the lowest of any president since the war.

Among his success stories in office was his fight to improve road safety which was calculated to have saved 8,500 lives in four years. He ended compulsory military service and reduced the presidential term from seven years to five.

He was a lifelong source of barbed quotes and digs, famously asking in reference to Margaret Thatcher: “What more does the bag want, my balls on a platter?” He once said of Britain: “You can’t trust people who cook as badly as that.” But he also made comments he would regret. “Africa is not ready for democracy,” he told a group of African leaders in the early 1990s. When mayor of Paris in 1991, he made a controversial speech about immigration and talked of French people being disturbed by “the noise and the smell”, sparking outrage.

Like François Mitterrand before him, Chirac wanted to leave behind a great cultural project and created Paris’s Quai Branly museum, a riverside monument to himself as the “great defender” of African, Asian, American and other indigenous cultures.

Throughout his presidency, he was dogged by the sleaze scandals from his days as mayor at Paris city hall. He claimed immunity as president, but when he left office he swiftly became the first former president convicted of a crime. Aged 79, he was handed a two-year suspended prison sentence after being found guilty of embezzling public funds as Paris mayor in order to illegally finance the rightwing party he led.

His lawyer, Georges Kiejman, said at the time: “What I hope is that this ruling doesn’t change in any way the deep affection the French feel legitimately for Jacques Chirac.”

It was a mark of Chirac’s extraordinary life and luck that it didn’t.