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Jacques Chirac, former French president who challenged U.S. over Iraq war, dies at 86

Former French President Jacques Chirac dies

Paris — Former French president Jacques Chirac, who led the country for 12 years from 1995 to 2007, has died at the age of 86. His son-in-law Frederic Salat-Baroux confirmed his passing, telling French news agency AFP that he "died this morning surrounded by his family, peacefully."  

"The French people, whatever their convictions, have lost a friend," said former President Francois Hollande.

Chirac gained international notoriety near the start of his second term, when he stood up to President George W. Bush as the American leader pushed his case for war with Iraq at the United Nations.

In early March 2003, Chirac vowed to use France's veto power as a permanent member of the U.N. Security Council to block the U.S.-led efforts, because International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA) weapons inspectors had found no evidence that Saddam Hussein actually had weapons of mass destruction, as Mr. Bush's administration contended.

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President George W. Bush, left, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, second left, Secretary of State Colin Powell, second right, and U.S. NATO Ambassador Nicholas Burns, right, listen as French President Jacques Chirac speaks at the opening session of the NATO summit in Istanbul, Turkey, Monday, June 28, 2004. AP

"I would say it's a moral problem," Chirac said in a TV interview at the time, "are we going to go to war when there may be a way to avoid it?"

His approval ratings in France soared to 90%. But the backlash from across the Atlantic was rapid and virulent. Many Americans shunned all things French; there were campaigns in Congress to rename French fries "freedom fries," and the phrase "cheese-eating surrender monkeys" was coined.

That anger at France from some parts of American society continued even after it became clear Saddam had no WMDs. For years, some Americans resented the fact that France had blocked a U.N.-led action, even as they recognized that the evidence presented by the Bush administration was outdated.

The hostility shocked the French, but Chirac stood his ground at the U.N. 

When President Bush began looking for ways around a U.N.-sanctioned military action, Chirac warned him: "Don't go it alone." But President Bush did, launching a U.S.-led but not U.N.-sanctioned invasion of Iraq on March 19, 2003.

Just a month later, U.S. officials were drawing up ways to punish France for getting in Washington's way. Measures included trying to exclude France from discussions on how to handle Iraq in the aftermath of the invasion, and not awarding reconstruction contracts to French companies.

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Then-French President Jacques Chirac and Luxembourg's Prime Minister Jean-Claude Juncker talk to then-President George W. Bush during a group photo with other members of the European Union, on Feb. 22, 2005, in Brussels. Getty

By May, Chirac had had enough. Convinced France was the victim of an "organized campaign of disinformation" from within the Bush administration, the government asked its ambassador to the U.S. to write to President Bush to ask him to set the record straight on accusations in the American media coming from "official sources."

The clash soured Franco-American relations for the next several years, but it increased Chirac's profile at home as the French praised him for standing up to what were seen as bullying tactics from Washington.

But while the Iraq crisis gave Chirac high approval ratings for a while, by the end of his second term in 2007, his popularity had plummeted.

French President Jacques Chirac listens
French President Jacques Chirac listens to the french national anthem, April 3, 2007, in the southern town of Bayonne, during his last visit to the French Army's Special Forces Regiment as president. Getty

Despite having spent his adult life as an elected public servant — he was Mayor of Paris and Prime Minister before becoming the second longest-serving president — Chirac's final days in office were beset by allegations of misuse of public funds.

Suffering poor health after what was reported as a minor stroke in 2005, the president started to slip quietly out of the public eye.

In December 2011, a Paris court found Chirac guilty of embezzling public funds. He was suffering from Alzheimer's by then and wasn't even in court. He was handed a two-year suspended sentence.

In 2016 he was hospitalized for a lung infection and his health had reportedly continued to deteriorate in recent years, leaving him increasingly frail.

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