Former French President Jacques Chirac, who led France from 1995 to 2007, has died at the age of 86, his family said.
Energetic, engaging and passionate, Chirac had been at the centre of French politics for nearly half a century and had dealings with every world leader since Leonid Brezhnev ruled the Soviet Union.
Chirac has been president of France twice and prime minister twice in addition to serving as mayor of Paris for 18 years. In 2002, Chirac defeared far-right Jean-Marie Le Pen – the father of Marine Le Pen, the president of the National Rally party – in the second round of a presidential election.
The president of the European Commission and former Luxembourg premier, Jean-Claude Juncker, was “moved and devastated” to learn of Chirac’s death.
“Europe is not only losing a great statesman but the president is losing a great friend,” European Commission spokeswoman Mina Andreeva quoted Juncker as saying.
Juncker wants to “pay tribute and honour his extensive lifelong work, and his legacy for France and the European Union will stay with us forever,” she added.
During his 12 years as president, Chirac ended compulsory military service, stood firm against the increasingly popular far right and was the first president to acknowledge that France’s Vichy regime had assisted the Nazis in World War II.
In 1995, he apologised on behalf of the French police officers and civil servants who served during World War II. Up to that moment, the government’s line had been that France bore no responsibility and all blame was to be directed at the Vichy government – a stance considered to be anti-Semitic.
“France, on that day, committed an irreparable act. It failed to keep its word and delivered those under its protection to their executioners,” he said.
Despite many ups and downs, he has remained a popular figure with a solid base of affection.
“For French people of my age, he has always been with us,” said Jacques Reland of the Global Policy Institute, speaking to Al Jazeera from Saint-Malo. “He started his career under General De Gaulle and ended as president of the republic.
“In the mind of the French people, he will be remembered as the man who opposed the Iraq war. We are thankful, left and right, for Jacques Chirac to have stood up to George W Bush at that time.
“He was a man of the people. He liked to drink a lot, to eat a lot … everyone who has come across him said ‘he’s a nice guy – I don’t agree with him politically, but he’s a good bloke’, as the British would say.”
In one poll, Chirac was voted the politician most French people would like to have dinner with.
Chirac also played an important role in ending the war in Yugoslavia in the 1990s and won widespread popularity in the Arab world for standing up to US President George W Bush over the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
While his career was marked by policy changes – which won him the nickname the ‘Chameleon Bonaparte’ or ‘La Girouette’ (the weather vane) – Chirac maintained his place in people’s hearts.
At one point, he fiercely opposed the EU, then supported it; by the same token, he went from championing US-style free-market economics and followed that by promoting protectionism.