WORLD NEWS
09/26/2019 06:09 EDT | Updated 09/26/2019 10:48 EDT

Former French President Jacques Chirac Dead At 86

His political career spanned four decades.

The era of establishment politics in France has ostensibly ended. Former French President Jacques Chirac, heir to the country’s Fifth Republic, has died, AFP and BBC News reported. He was 86.

Chirac spent his professional life as a member of the Fifth Republic, the postwar government that Charles de Gaulle enacted in 1958. He held positions with every single presidency in France from 1958 until he himself became president in 1995, following François Mitterrand.

His trajectory is particularly notable at a time when establishment politics in France appears to no longer be in vogue, with fringe candidates, such as the extreme right-ring National Front’s Marine Le Pen, joining the mainstream.

Chirac, born Nov. 29, 1932, grew up in Paris as an only child. He attended some of the city’s best schools and then went on to study at Sciences Po, one of France’s most prestigious universities for the study of social sciences, and the Ecole National de l’Administration, France’s premier institution for budding civil servants.

AFP via Getty Images
Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac, left, speaks with Nicolas Sarkozy, 26, on March 24, 1981. At the time, Chirac was president of the Rally for the Republic party and Sarkozy was in charge of its youth division. Sarkozy ended up succeeding Chirac as president in 2007.

De Gaulle was an early inspiration of his, and Chirac’s decision to fight in the war with Algeria in 1954 cemented his political views around those of the war general. Gaullism is loosely defined by national unity through the creation of a steady economy and the preservation of historical glory.

After a stint working for Prime Minister Georges Pompidou, Chirac held a series of ministerial positions, beginning in 1967. It took only a few years for him to become prime minister. President Valéry Giscard d’Estaing nominated him to the position in 1974.

He resigned in 1976 and worked to consolidate France’s conservatives under a new, de Gaulle-inspired party called the Rally for the Republic. This led him to run for mayor of Paris, a position he won in 1977 and held until 1995 (with another two-year stint as prime minister thrown in during that time).

He decided to run for president toward the end of his time as mayor. He campaigned on the notion that a “social fracture” was tearing France apart. Too many people suffered from unemployment, he said, and governmental assistance was responsible for enabling them to remain unemployed. He advocated for lower taxes and austerity. He defeated socialist Lionel Jospin in the second round and won reelection in 2002.

“There are two Frances,” he said in 1995. “It’s a diabolical system, I’m sorry to say it.”

GEORGES GOBET via Getty Images
Russian President Vladimir Putin, left, French President Jacques Chirac, Chinese President Jiang Zemin, British Prime Minister Tony Blair and U.S. President Bill Clinton at a U.N. Security Council meeting in September 2000 in New York.

Chirac’s legacy is complicated. On the one hand, he took bold steps as France’s leader.

Only a few weeks after taking office in 1995, he was the first French president to publicly recognize France’s role in the Holocaust, admitting that the country’s Vichy government had deported thousands of its own citizens to concentration camps. 

He opposed the invasion of Iraq by U.S. and British forces. He took a hard stance against the overt anti-Semitism that the National Front displayed in those days under its founder, Jean-Marie Le Pen. He was the one to push U.S. President Bill Clinton to intervene in the Balkans. His government was responsible for reducing the workweek to 35 hours.

Yet the economy, which he had set out to restore, fell apart during his 12 years as president ― unemployment hovered around 10 percent the entire time and debt soared. The “social fracture” he alluded to throughout his campaign was never mended.

Although de Gaulle remained an inspiration throughout his years in office, Chirac also became known for his inconsistency. He would vacillate from the right to the left and back in order to score a win or undermine an opponent. He was even nicknamed La Girouette, the weathervane. 

GERARD JULIEN via Getty Images
Chirac sings the national anthem during a re-election campaign rally on March 12, 2002.

He left office with record-low approval ratings.

Many felt that Chirac had lost touch with his own country by the end of his time in office. He and members of his cabinet tended to eschew the economic and social realities of their time and instead refer back to France’s former splendor. He flat out told a group of young people in 2005 that he didn’t understand them.

Corruption scandals also mounted as the years went on. In 2011, he was convicted of illegally using taxpayer funds while he was Paris mayor, offering nonexistent jobs to his political allies. He avoided investigation while he was president, citing executive immunity.

His health has been on the decline for several years. He suffered a stroke in 2005 and has been hospitalized numerous times for heart and lung issues since. In 2011, he refused to show up in court citing his fragile mental state.

He is succeeded by his wife, Bernadette, and daughter Claude. His other daughter Laurence died in 2016 at age 58 after a long battle with anorexia.

CORRECTION: A previous version of this article misstated the date of Chirac’s reelection as 2000.