Former French President Jacques Chirac, known for a carefully crafted “everyman” image but whose later years were dogged by allegations of corruption, has died at the age of 86.
News of his death was reported by CNN affiliate BFM.
In recent years, Chirac had suffered from memory loss and was rarely seen in public, but the two-time president will be remembered for his political prowess and his cultivated man-of-the-people style.
Chirac was born and educated in Paris, but developed an affinity for his family’s native region in rural France and never lost his touch for the country or the common man.
As president, he clearly enjoyed mixing in with the crowds, trying a bite of this or a glass of that, and often attended agricultural fairs.
Even though he graduated from the best schools, Chirac worked as a sailor at one time and even briefly held a job in the United States.
“I worked also in a factory in St. Louis, an Anheuser-Busch factory,” he told CNN’s Larry King in 1995.
Chirac volunteered for the French Army in 1956 during the Algerian war. But he was driven by an interest in politics, and at age 35 he became one of the youngest government ministers in France under President Charles de Gaulle.
He held a series of national jobs and then in 1977 became the first elected mayor of Paris – a post that had been, until then, an appointed position.
Chirac clearly understood the political value in the job: Being mayor of the capital was a perfect springboard to national power. Through his popularity – some would say prowess – Chirac was able to serve twice as Prime Minister, even as he retained the job of Paris mayor.
By 1995 his career was flying high. He ran for president and won. But almost from the beginning of his term, he was faced with labor unrest over his economic austerity plans. By the end of his first year, unions nearly brought the country to its knees with strikes that paralyzed the transport sector. The government had to make an embarrassing about-face.
Still hoping more than a year later to enact his plans, Chirac ordered new elections, but the gamble backfired and the national assembly and government shifted to the left. His rival for the presidency became the prime minister. It was perhaps one of Chirac’s greatest political miscalculations.
The years that followed were difficult ones, but Chirac’s popularity rose as the Socialist prime minister’s fell. In 2002, he was elected to a second term.
While there were few dramatic initiatives during his second time in office, one did stand out: He sent his foreign minister to the United Nations to publicly declare that France would oppose the US-led war in Iraq.
The move led to was certainly a low point in Franco-American relations, but as Chirac told CNN at the time, there was no going back.
“That any given individual country could go to war, or wage war on its own, is unthinkable, no one’s even contemplating that. So there’s not any other solution to multilateralism. It is the conscience and the effectiveness of the world, as expressed to the UN.”
As his second mandate played out, Chirac’s popularity went into free fall. Even when he suffered a minor stroke in 2005, there was little sympathy for the clearly aging president. At the end of his term in 2007, less than one person in five approved of his presidency – a record low.
But the end of his political career did not end his problems. For years, he was dogged by charges of corruption dating back decades to his time in the Paris City Hall.
He had immunity from the charges while he was president, but as he moved out of office, the prosecutor moved in. Chirac was tried and convicted of putting his political party workers on the city’s payroll, and was given a two-year suspended sentence.
Still, through all of the ups and downs of his nearly 40-year career in politics, Chirac remained one of the most popular public figures in France. But that popularity, biographers suggest, may be due to his the perception of him as an “everyman,” rather than for any particular achievement.