Mr. Chirac served two terms as president, from May 1995 until May 2007, the pinnacle of a political career at the highest levels of French government that spanned five decades. He was the only person in the postwar Fifth Republic to serve twice as prime minister, and he was the mayor of Paris for 18 years, a post he used to build the political machine that he eventually rode to the presidency.
His long tenure as Paris mayor also gave rise to corruption allegations that followed Mr. Chirac to the presidency and beyond. He was accused of creating fictitious jobs in the Paris mayor’s office and of funneling public funds to his political party, Rally for the Republic.
The courts ruled that Mr. Chirac was immune from prosecution while president, allowing the whiff of corruption to linger during his 12 years in the Elysee Palace. In 2009, two years after he left office, Mr. Chirac was ordered to stand trial for embezzlement and breach of trust.
In December 2011, a French court found him guilty of embezzlement and handed down a two-year suspended sentence, which his lawyers said he was too enfeebled to appeal. He suffered from a neurological condition that impaired his memory.
Mr. Chirac was a large man by French standards, standing 6-foot-2, and was given to large, sometimes theatrical gestures, shrugging or waving his arms dramatically or displaying exasperation with his large, expressive face. He was a consummate campaigner who seemed to revel in the tedium of attending agricultural shows, petting cows and posing with babies.
His public gregariousness masked a forceful style that prompted an early mentor, the late president Georges Pompidou, to call Mr. Chirac “my bulldozer,” and it became one of several nicknames that stuck throughout his colorful career.
The fluidity of Mr. Chirac’s policy positions led to other popular nicknames, like “Chameleon Bonaparte” and “Girouette,” French for “weather vane.”
Dapper and considered a blunt speaker, Mr. Chirac was at times given to undiplomatic statements. In a 2005 dig at Britain’s then-prime minister, Tony Blair, as the two clashed over European Union policy, Mr. Chirac was overheard to say, “One cannot trust people whose cuisine is so bad.”
In another blast at the British, Mr. Chirac said: “The only thing they have ever done for European agriculture is mad cow disease.”
Mr. Chirac was equally known for his large appetites, regarding gastronomy — his favorite dish was calf’s head, and he preferred beer over wine — and, according to French lore, the opposite sex. His exploits were chronicled in books at the end of his presidency, with Mr. Chirac telling one author, “There have been women I have loved a lot, as discreetly as possible.”
He also boasted of his affection for the United States. Fluent in English, although with a heavy French accent, Mr. Chirac liked to tell of how he hitchhiked across America during his youth in the 1950s, working variously as a “soda jerk” at a Howard Johnson’s restaurant in Cambridge, Mass.; a forklift driver in St. Louis; and briefly as a journalist with the New Orleans Times-Picayune.
Mr. Chirac was the first foreign leader to travel to the United States after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks. He visited Ground Zero to meet New York City firefighters. He later dispatched French troops to the U.S.-led military operation in Afghanistan.
Yet the latter part of his presidency was marked by a sharp deterioration in French-U. S. relations, as Mr. Chirac became one of the most outspoken opponents of the George W. Bush administration’s plans for military action against Iraq. Mr. Chirac formed an antiwar alliance with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Russian President Vladimir Putin.
Mr. Chirac said he feared a war would inflame anti-Western passions in the Middle East and unleash a new wave of terrorism. He said the United States had not proved that Iraqi President Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Chirac proposed an alternative route that included strengthened United Nations weapons inspections, with stepped-up aerial surveillance, which France would help provide.
Critics in the United States dismissed Mr. Chirac’s stance as Machiavellian posturing. Some Americans boycotted French products, late-night comedians made France the butt of jokes, and the Republican-controlled Congress renamed french fries “freedom fries” on the menu at congressional cafeterias.
Political rise, shifting ideology
Jacques Rene Chirac was born Nov. 29, 1932. Although in his political campaigns he presented himself as a champion of the French farmers and most at home in “la France profonde” — the traditional French countryside — he was born in Paris, the son of a successful aircraft company executive.
By most accounts, Mr. Chirac had a lonely childhood. A sister died when he was young, so he was raised as an only child. During World War II, he was evacuated to the south of France. He would later have fond memories of Americans he met who had helped liberate France during the war.
Mr. Chirac attended the Political Sciences Institute in Paris, where he met Bernadette Chodron de Courcel, whom he married in 1956. He later attended France’s prestigious Ecole Nationale d’Administration, the traditional training ground for France’s elite civil service. He also served in the French army and volunteered for duty in Algeria during its war for independence.
Like many young Frenchmen in the 1950s, Mr. Chirac joined the French Communist Party and became active in campaigning against nuclear weapons. He sold copies of the party’s newspaper, L’Humanite, on street corners.
Mr. Chirac eventually found his political home as a Gaullist, following the traditions of national independence and a strong, centralized state attributed to the man he claimed as his mentor, World War II resistance hero and French president Charles de Gaulle. Mr. Chirac even had his presidential office at the Elysee Palace outfitted with de Gaulle’s desk.
But for Mr. Chirac, who traveled the spectrum from far left to center-right, ideology always seemed less about any core set of convictions than about furthering his single-minded — some would say ruthless — political ambition.
Mr. Chirac entered the civil service in 1959, and three years later, joined the personal staff of Pompidou, then prime minister, thus beginning a long career at the highest levels of government.
Mr. Chirac was first elected to the French parliament in 1967 from Correze, his ancestral home in southwest France. He served as minister of social affairs and in 1972 was elevated to the more important post of minister of agriculture, which allowed him to build a reputation as a champion of French farmers.
After Pompidou died in office in 1974, Mr. Chirac threw his support behind Valéry Giscard d’Estaing, the minister of economy and finance. When Giscard won the presidency, Mr. Chirac was rewarded with the post of prime minister.
A political machine
The two had a political split in 1976, however, and Mr. Chirac began building a political machine and laying the groundwork for his own presidential ambitions. Giscard revived the long-dormant office of Paris mayor, which Mr. Chirac won in 1977.
The rift between Giscard and Mr. Chirac precipitated an epic rivalry between the two dominant figures on the political right — a rivalry that eventually benefited the French Socialists, who coalesced behind a single leader, Francois Mitterrand.
When Mitterrand defeated Giscard in the 1981 election, Giscard blamed his loss on Mr. Chirac, whose candidacy split the vote on the right.
Mitterrand served 14 years as president before Mr. Chirac was elected in 1995 on a conservative platform of lower taxes. His early days in office were characterized by a peripatetic energy, in sharp contrast with Mitterrand’s more languid style.
But after debilitating labor strikes, Mr. Chirac, made the politically disastrous decision to dissolve parliament in 1997 and call new elections, hoping for a fresh mandate for the conservatives. The idea backfired, and left-leaning parties won the elections. For the remainder of his term, Mr. Chirac was forced to politically “cohabit” with a Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin.
With his powers significantly curtailed, Mr. Chirac largely retreated to foreign affairs, the preserve of the president under the French system.
In 2002, with the slow-growing corruption scandals taking a toll on Mr. Chirac’s popularity, poll numbers showed he would face a difficult reelection rematch against Jospin. But in the first, multicandidate round of elections, the extreme-right candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen, whose National Front party was identified with racist and xenophobic positions, outpolled Jospin.
While Mr. Chirac was widely disliked by voters on the left, Le Pen was anathema. Before the second round of voting, signs began appearing at anti-Le Pen rallies with the slogan, “Vote for the crook, not the fascist!” Mr. Chirac easily won reelection with 82 percent of the vote.
Out of office, Mr. Chirac’s popularity returned as the French public came to view him more affectionately. In 2009, he was briefly hospitalized after being attacked by his pet Maltese poodle, Sumo; the dog was said to be taking anti-depressants because of its unpredictability.
In addition to his wife, Mr. Chirac’s survivors include his daughter Claude Chirac, who became one of his top political advisers; and Anh Dao Traxel, a Vietnamese foster daughter the Chiracs adopted. His daughter Laurence Chirac, who suffered from severe anorexia and mental disorders and made multiple suicide attempts, died in 2016 reportedly after a heart attack. Laurence had spent much of her life in seclusion, and the former president described her illness as “the greatest tragedy of my life.”
Richburg is a former Washington Post staff writer.