France on Thursday mourned the death of Jacques Chirac, a “great Frenchman” who served as president from 1995 to 2007 and many said embodied the “soul” of the nation.
He died on Thursday morning at the age of 86 “surrounded by his family, peacefully”, according to Frederic Salat-Baroux, Mr Chirac’s son-in-law.
In a televised address to the nation last night, President Emmanuel Macron paid tribute to “a great Frenchman”, saying: “We have lost a head of state who we loved as much as he loved us.”
“President Chirac embodied a certain idea of France,” he said.
France will observe a national day of mourning next Monday and a solemn service will be held at Saint-Sulpice church.
In an exceptional move, the Elysée Palace was opened last night to allow Parisians to allow them to “express their condolences”.
Parliament held a minute’s silence and the lights of the Eiffel Tower were switched off after nightfall in honour of the man who also ran Paris for 18 years and turned the French capital into his power base.
Paris Mayor Anne Hidalgo, said: “He will be our mayor forever, loving this city and its inhabitants with passion.”
Tributes poured in from around the world in memory of the man perhaps best remembered abroad for his public opposition to the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq and whose domestic popularity remained intact despite a graft conviction – a first for a French head of state.
Boris Johnson hailed Mr Chirac as “a formidable political leader who shaped the destiny of his nation”.
“His loss will be felt throughout France, across the generations,” he added.
Tony Blair, who met Mr Chirac on may occasions as Prime Minister, called him “a towering figure in French and European politics over many decades.
“Whatever our differences from time to time, he was always unfailingly kind, generous and personally supportive.“
John Major said Mr Chirac “was always prepared to be a friend and partner of the United Kingdom”, calling him a “supreme politician – but one whose mind could be changed by facts, by persuasion, or by circumstance.”
Mr Chirac had a “prickly” relationship with Margaret Thatcher, famously losing patience with her requests for more help from the EU at a 1988 summit in Brussels and blurting to the then French president François Mitterrand: “What more does this housewife want from me? My balls on a plate?”
Lord Powell of Bayswater, who as Charles Powell was private secretary to Lady Thatcher when Prime Minister, recalled: “They called him ‘the bulldozer’ but when he met an immovable object in the form of Margaret Thatcher, there was quite a bit of friction and sparks were struck”.
“He was given to profanity during European meetings and assumed she wouldn’t understand what he was saying in French,” he told the Telegraph. “We all heard him once say a particularly vulgar word about her. Those of us who could understand French knew what he had. The interpreters skidded to a halt. She looked totally unconcerned.”
Regarding Britain, he was also overheard in 2005 quipping to fellow leaders: “You can’t trust people who cook as badly as that”, adding: ”The only thing the British have ever done for European agriculture is mad cow disease.”
Other foreign leaders hailed his service to France.
German Chancellor Angela Merkel called him “an outstanding partner and friend to us Germans and to me personally” while Russian President Vladimir Putin lamented a ”wise and far-sighted statesman” whose “intellect and great knowledge” led to “balanced decisions.”
Dozens of mourners laid wreaths beneath his Paris home while former friends and foes hailed the popularity of the beer-swilling Enarque with the common touch.
Successor Nicolas Sarkozy lauded a mentor who “never gave an inch on our independence, nor on his deep commitment to Europe.”
“A part of my life has disappeared today,” said Mr Sarkozy, adding that Mr Chirac “embodied a France faithful to its universal values”.
Marine Le Pen, leader of the far-right National Rally party, said despite political differences with Mr Chirac “he was able to oppose the madness of the war in Iraq”. Her father, Jean-Marie, who lost to the Gaullist in a shock presidential run-off in 2002, said: “In death, even the enemy deserves respect.”
Twice elected head of state in 1995 and 2002, his 12 years in the Elysee Palace made him France’s second longest-serving post-war president after his Socialist predecessor Francois Mitterrand.
Although his reformist legacy is the subject of heated debate, he is acknowledged as the first French head of state to recognise the role of the Vichy regime in the Holocaust and the first to apologise formally to the Jewish people.
He ended compulsory military service and initiated moves that reintegrated France into the NATO defence alliance, reversing a policy set in the 1960s.
Dubbed “Chameleon Bonaparte” by detractors, the conservative turned from tepid Eurosceptic into one of the continent’s main standard-bearers, forging an alliance with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.
However, he failed to persuade the nation to vote “yes” in a 2005 referendum on the European constitutional treaty.
European Union Commission President Jean-Claude Juncker said that the EU had lost one of the strongest defenders of European unity and that his “legacy for France and the EU will stay with us forever.”
While doing little on the domestic front for the environment, he made a now prescient clarion call for action on global warming in 2002 in South Africa, warning: “Our house in on fire and we are looking elsewhere.”
Mr Chirac served two stints as prime minister in 1974-76 and 1986-88 and was mayor of his native Paris from 1977-1995.
It was his time at the helm of the French capital that resulted, once he had lost his presidential immunity, in a 2011 conviction for spending public money on fake jobs for political cronies.
Mr Chirac had a long-discreet passion for Asian culture, from Sumo wrestling to Chinese art. One of his legacies is the Quai Branly Museum in Paris, showcasing indigenous art from Africa, the Americas, Asia and the Pacific. He was secretive about his love of art, with one former secretary of state Françoise Giroud remarking: “Chirac reads a poetry book hidden behind Playboy.”
His reputation as a ladies’ man – he once said “There have been women I have loved a lot, as discreetly as possible” – did not make life easy for his wife Bernadette, an aristocrat he met at university and married soon afterwards.
The couple had two daughters, Laurence, who died in 2016, and Claude, long in charge of his communication, and they also adopted a Vietnamese daughter, Anh Dao Traxel.
Mr Chirac had rarely been seen in public in recent years and was long known to have been suffering from ill-health following strokes and neurological problems. He was last seen in public in 2014.