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Former French president Chirac dies at 86

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Former French president Jacques Chirac, a colossal figure in France's politics for three decades, has died at the age of 86

[PARIS] Former French president Jacques Chirac, a colossal figure in France's politics for three decades, has died at the age of 86, his family told AFP on Thursday.

The centre-right Chirac rose to prominence as mayor of Paris before becoming prime minister and then serving as head of state from 1995-2007.

"President Jacques Chirac died this morning surrounded by his family, peacefully," his son-in-law Frederic Salat-Baroux told AFP.

His time at the Elysee saw France adopt the euro single currency and, in a landmark moment for relations with Washington, loudly oppose the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

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A born political fighter, he bounced back from defeats in the 1981 and 1988 presidential elections to finally claim the Elysee in 1995.

His legacy is overshadowed by a conviction for graft dating to his time as mayor of Paris which saw him handed a suspended jail term. But this did little to dent his popularity among supporters.

First elected head of state in 1995 and then re-elected in 2002, Chirac's 12 years in the Elysee Palace made him France's second longest-serving post-war president after his Socialist predecessor Francois Mitterrand.

"Jacques Chirac is part of the history of France," said parliament speaker Richard Ferrand from the ruling centrist party of President Emmanuel Macron.

He said Chirac left behind a "a France that was like him - complex, sometimes crossed by contradictions and always motivated by an unbridled Republican passion."

Both chambers of France's parliament - the lower House National Assembly and the upper house Senate - observed a minute of silence after the news was announced.

Macron cancelled a planned trip to the south of France to discuss pension reform and will address the nation at 1800 GMT, his office said.

Macron's predecessor Francois Hollande praised Chirac as a "fighter" who had "known how to establish a personal link with the French".

And Chirac's successor Nicolas Sarkozy, who regarded the former president as a mentor, said: "A part of my life has disappeared today."

A conservative politician but with an appeal that extended beyond the right, Chirac also served two stints as prime minister in 1974-76 and 1986-88 and was mayor of his native Paris from 1977-1995.

The Socialist Mitterrand was a longtime political adversary, with the two enduring a famously uneasy period of "cohabitation" when Chirac was premier.

It was Chirac's time at the helm of the French capital that resulted, once he had lost his presidential immunity, in a conviction for embezzlement and misuse of public funds.

Chirac was found guilty in December 2011 of influence peddling, breach of trust and embezzlement.

He contested the ruling but did not appeal it, saying the French people "know who I am: an honest man" who worked only for "the grandeur of France and for peace."

Despite his long marriage to Bernadette, his passion for women was also renowned. He said just before leaving office: "There have been women I have loved a lot, as discreetly as possible."

He suffered a stroke in 2005 and underwent successful kidney surgery in December 2013, and was rarely seen in public in recent years.

A politician with a popular touch, who loved the company of farmers and was famed for earthy quotes, Chirac was regarded by supporters as one of France's most charismatic post-war politicians.

He was also passionate about global art, particularly from Asia, and he leaves behind the acclaimed Quai Branly indigenous art museum in Paris which carries his name.

"He loved France so much. He loved the people, he loved touching them, he loved seeing them, he loved laughing with them," Line Renaud, an actress and friend of the former leader, told BFM television channel.

European Commission and former Luxembourg premier Jean-Claude Juncker was "moved and devastated" to learn of Chirac's death, a spokeswoman said, adding that Europe was losing a "great statesman".

All sides of the political spectrum in France, for once, came together to pay tribute to what he had done for the country.

Chirac "loved France more than those who came after," said far-left leader Jean-Luc Melenchon.

Far-right National Rally leader Marine Le Pen said he was "capable of opposing madness and the war in Iraq".

But left-wing website Mediapart questioned how much he had actually achieved, arguing he spent most of his political energy trying to stay in power rather than achieving change.

"He leaves behind him 40 years of political battles. But his legacy is very thin given how his career was built around the single ambition of winning power and then keeping it."

AFP