The end, when it came, was bleakly anti-climactic.
At 5 :15 Thursday morning, under a cold and relentlessly dark sky, a French general emerged from Percy Military Training Hospital and tersely announced Yasser Arafat's death to a handful of bundled-up camera crews and photographers and exactly two onlookers. He gave no cause of death or any details.
The announcement marked the end of the Palestinian leader's struggle for life in an intensive care unit here after slipping into a coma eight days before. It also closed out a melodrama of wild rumors about whether he had already died and a soap opera-style spat between his wife and his longtime associates in the Palestinian national movement.
As news bulletins spread through Paris, a crowd slowly gathered. By early afternoon more than 200 people had made their way to Lt. Raoul Batany Street. They waved Palestinian banners and chanted "Abu Ammar is gone. Palestine will live!" in Arabic, using Arafat's Palestinian name. They placed white roses against the stone wall outside the hospital gates, taped up messages scrawled in marker and lit candles on the sidewalk.
President Jacques Chirac visited the hospital late in the morning to offer condolences to Arafat's widow, Suha, and praise her husband as "a man of courage and conviction."
Later in the afternoon, a French military helicopter ferried Arafat's coffin to the Villacoublay military airport, where the French government held a solemn ceremony for the dead leader. An honor guard of eight soldiers carried the coffin, draped in a Palestinian flag, from the helicopter to an awaiting airliner, while a band played a funeral processional and Suha Arafat quietly wept.
Then the plane took off, carrying the coffin, Suha Arafat, three dozen other Palestinian notables and French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier to Cairo for the funeral.
Arafat had been airlifted from the West Bank to the hospital in Clamart, just south of Paris, 13 days ago after suffering nausea, stomach pain and other intestinal problems.
As her husband grew sicker, Suha Arafat drew a curtain of silence around him, refusing to release information to his Palestinian colleagues seeking to organize a rational succession process. When they dispatched a delegation of senior leaders to visit him, she denounced them as conspirators, but later relented and gave them access to her husband's medical team.
The swirl of rumors and speculation never slowed. On Wednesday night, Palestinian sources in the West Bank and Gaza claimed that Arafat had emerged from his coma and opened his eyes. But hours later, Gen. Christian Estripeau announced Arafat's death.
Throughout the day Thursday, the French authorities refused to disclose the nature of his illness or to say if they had performed an autopsy or other tests to determine the cause of death.
When the helicopter took off from the hospital in the late afternoon, the crowd outside cheered. People who had spent a chilly afternoon paying homage slowly dispersed and headed home.
Mohammed Khalloufi, 50, a French Palestinian doctor, had driven to Clamart this morning from his home in the suburb of Creteuil with his two sons, ages 14 and 7. They wore matching kaffiyehs, the black-and-white headdress that was Arafat's trademark.
"I came to pay homage," Khalloufi said. "I've lost a father. I wanted my sons to see this so that they remember who he was."
Special correspondent Maria Gabriella Bonetti in Clamart contributed to this report.