President Jacques Chirac, who provided Yasser Arafat with emergency medical care in his final days and an official ceremony befitting a head of state following his death, led a chorus of world statesmen Thursday in praising the Palestinian leader.

"With him disappears a man of courage and conviction who for 40 years has incarnated the Palestinians' fight for recognition of their national rights," the French leader declared.

President Vladimir Putin of Russia called Arafat "a great political leader of international significance." The Chinese president, Hu Jintao, called him "an outstanding leader of the Palestinian cause and . . . an outstanding politician."

At U.N. headquarters in New York, where Arafat once memorably addressed the General Assembly, flags were flown at half-staff to honor the former guerrilla leader. Secretary General Kofi Annan praised him as a symbol of national aspiration.

The Bush administration saw Arafat as an obstacle to Middle East peace and a sponsor of terrorism.

But many governments in Europe and throughout the world saw him as the legitimate leader of the Palestinian people and recall him as a winner of the Nobel Peace Prize for signing the 1993 Oslo peace accords with Israel. They are sending foreign ministers to his funeral in Cairo, while the United States is sending an assistant secretary of state.

"This will reinforce the widely held view in America that the French in particular and Europeans in general are soft on terrorism, greatly opposed to Israel and perhaps anti-Semitic," said Charles Grant, director of the Center for European Reform, a think tank in London. "Everyone in Europe knows the Palestinian Authority was corrupt and Arafat was difficult, but we don't forget the very constructive role he played in the Middle East peace process for many years."

Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair, the Bush administration's closest European ally, praised Arafat for having "led his people to an historic acceptance of the need for a two-state solution" -- the vision of Israel and a Palestinian state existing peacefully side by side. Blair is traveling to Washington to meet with President Bush on Friday, and he has said that the Middle East peace process is at the top of his agenda.

The reaction in Europe reflected in part the strong desire of governments here to play a more active role in the peace process, analysts said.

"This very somber but very dignified farewell was really not just a show of respect for Arafat but for the Palestinian cause in general," said Rime Allaf, a Middle East expert with the Royal Institute for International Affairs in London. "Still, everybody knows the name of the game is the United States."

Among those who knew Arafat well, not all the praise was unmitigated. Terje Roed-Larsen, the U.N. special envoy to the Middle East who helped negotiate the Oslo agreements, said the Palestinian leader was like a surrealistic painting.

"He was full of contradictions, full of mysteries and full of inconsistencies," he told Norwegian NRK radio. "He was complex, deep, superficial, rational, irrational, cold, warm.

"His big idols were Gamal Abdel Nasser, the great Egyptian leader, and Saddam Hussein -- the strong autocrats in the Arab world," Roed-Larsen said. "Arafat's ambition was not only to be the leader of the Palestinians, but he wanted to be the ruler of the Arab and the Muslim world."