Former president of France

Born: November 29, 1932;

Died: September 26, 2019

JACQUES Chirac, who has died aged 86, was a major political force in French and European politics for over 40 years. He was head of state from 1995 to 2007 serving twice as president, twice as prime minister and for 18 years was the mayor of Paris.

Some considered him unreliable but he gave France style, charisma and a sense of glamour. Despite all his promise as president he left France as torn as when he entered the Elysée Palace. Chirac was a superb campaigner and communicator who never lost the common touch. He wooed voters with charm, wit and elegance – all proved vital in his long political career.

Chirac well understood the role of the president and found the delicate balance between the grandeur of the office and the hard politics. Subsequent presidents have never matched his flamboyant flair. In a recent poll Chirac was nominated as one of France’s favourite post-war politicians.

Jacques René Chirac was born in Paris to a wealthy family. His father was in business and Chirac attended first-class lycées and, during his military service, in Algeria was awarded the Croix de la Valeur Militaire. At the elite Ecole Nationale d’Administration he was a keen sportsman - especially rugby – and spent many summers in the UK with a family. Back in Paris he entered public life, became a friend of the future president Georges Pompidou, who as prime minister offered Chirac in 1962 a position on his personal staff.

His promotions were then rapid. Chirac became a member of Parliament in 1967 and a junior minister in 1969. He was a strong supporter of French farmers and when Pompidou died suddenly in 1974 the new president, Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, appointed Chirac, at the age of 41, prime minister. After two years he resigned clashing over Giscard’s liberal policies. In 1977 Chirac won election to be mayor of Paris.

So began 18 years of intense work to improve the city’s amenities, including the creation of new parks. Chirac’s financial support for the arts attracted Rudolf Nureyev to become artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet. He was twice re-elected, and delighted in the nickname, “le Maire Soleil”.

He made his first, and unsuccessful, bid for the presidency in 1981, challenging Giscard. In the event the socialist François Mitterrand won; he then had to choose a prime minister from a different party. Chirac was appointed premier for a second time. The two worked well together – Chirac concentrating on domestic affairs. He lost to Mitterrand again in 1988 and resigned as prime minister returning to the mayor’s office.

In 1995 he did win the presidency and set in hand a controversial programme – not least by resuming nuclear tests. He publicly, and bravely, acknowledged France’s involvement in the transportation of Jews to concentration camps during the Second World War. However, his programme of economic plans went badly and caused widespread financial unrest and unemployment. In 1995 he faced a crippling three-week general strike and had to impose social security cuts to reduce the mounting deficit.

Chirac had immense charm but was forthright in his opinions. He was known in France as Le Bulldozer and Margaret Thatcher once had to remind him at an EU Summit (according to her autobiography) that, “on more than one occasion the lady was not for bulldozing.” But she respected Chirac whom she found, “blunt, direct, forceful, direct, argumentative with a sure grasp of detail.”

In 1997 Chirac unwisely called an early election which the Socialists won and he was forced to appoint the left-wing Lionel Jospin as Prime Minister. They had a productive administration – not least preparing France for the Euro.

At the G8 Summit at Gleneagles in 2005 Chirac warmly congratulated Tony Blair after London had beaten Paris to host the 2012 Olympic Games. Mark you, Chirac did not endear himself to his hosts when he joked that, “The British could not be trusted and worse food was only found in Finland.” When Tony Blair mentioned that the chef at Gleneagles, Andrew Fairlie, might include haggis on the menu Chirac was not enthusiastic.

Chirac was an astute politician and knew what the voters would accept. One of the reasons he is remembered with respect in France was his refusal to commit French troops to the US/UK Invasion of Iraq in 2003. “War is always a last resort.” He declared, “It is always proof of failure”.

Like previous presidents Chirac founded un grand projet and created in Paris the museum Quai Branly devoted to African and Asian art.

Chirac had promised to heal the ‘social fracture’ in French society. His years as president had achieved few social improvements – the economy was lethargic, unemployment high and the over-generous welfare system had not been curtailed. Worse were the scandals which came to light while he was mayor. It emerged his expenses for “entertaining and food” were huge and his private life was much mentioned in the gossip columns. The French seemed to accept his grand lifestyle but in 2011 news of valuable construction contracts were brought up in a court case. Chirac was found guilty of embezzling public funds and given a two-year suspended sentence.

Jacques Chirac is survived by his wife, Bernadette whom he married in 1956, his younger daughter and an adopted daughter.