The death of former French president Jacques Chirac will be greeted with mixed emotions internationally but his stature will endure in France. Even when convicted in 2011 of corruption during his time as mayor of Paris, he retained a deep affection in the hearts of French people.
On the international stage, Chirac will be best remembered for infuriating the United States with his public opposition to the 2003 war in Iraq, declaring: “War is always the worst of solutions, because it brings death and misery.”
As a former combat soldier in the Algerian war, he knew better than most. Nevertheless, his staunch and enduring opposition caused some Americans to accuse France of betrayal.
It even led to French fries being renamed “freedom fries” in the cafes of the Houses of Congress. It also prompted a boycott of French wine, cheese and other imports, with Fox News gleefully declaring: “Americans Just Say ‘Non’ to French Products”.
One of Chirac’s most memorable gestures was to confront his fellow citizens with their history by acknowledging that France as a whole, and not just the Vichy regime, was responsible for the roundup of some 76,000 Jews sent to Nazi death camps during the Second World War. His vow that the “criminal folly” of German occupation was “assisted by the French people, by the French state” lifted the last taboo of the war.
It was the sign of a great, albeit flawed, statesman.