Chirac Leaves Behind a Mixed Legacy

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Chirac arrives in Berlin to meet German Chancellor Angela Merkel

French President Jacques Chirac will end his 12-year stint as the country's leader on May 16. Sean Gallup/Getty Images hide caption

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Scroll through a timeline of Chirac's presidency. Lindsay Mangum hide caption

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U.S. President George W. Bush meets with French President Jacques Chirac in New Yo

U.S. President George W. Bush meets with French President Jacques Chirac in September 2006 in New York. Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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French President Jacques Chirac takes German Chancellor Angela Merkel's arm during visit to Germany.

French President Jacques Chirac takes German Chancellor Angela Merkel's arm after they review an honor guard as he makes his last official visit to Germany on May 3. Patrick Kovarik/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

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With a new president of France set to take office on May 16, the reign of another comes to a close.

France's president for the last 12 years, Jacques Chirac, leaves a legacy of hands-on leadership on international issues behind. But while many French people agree Chirac was an energetic and effective leader on the world stage, they say he was indecisive and weak when it came to enacting reforms at home.

When Chirac, 74, was first elected to local office in 1965, half of today's French population was not yet born. The tall, gregarious leader, who has been described at once as avuncular and ruthless, is above all a political survivor. Many say Chirac would have no doubt run for a third presidential term this year had his poll numbers not been so low. He kept his countrymen guessing about his political intentions until the very last minute, finally bowing out of politics in an emotional address to the French people.

"My countrymen, I love France passionately and have put my whole heart, energy and force into serving her and you," Chirac said. "It has been the engagement of a lifetime."

Like his political mentor Charles De Gaulle, Chirac believes that France had a unique role to play on the world stage. He sees France as a defender of human rights and, while in power, Chirac has had a penchant for grand, humanitarian ideas like taxing airline tickets to raise money to fight AIDS and poverty in Africa. He nurtured French post-colonial-era ties with the Arab world and Africa. And analysts say that with his departure, France's special relationship with these countries will diminish.

Chirac also spoke out for a multi-polar world in which France's voice would be heard on the international scene. The French approved of Chirac's handling of foreign policy and he was never more popular than when he stood up to the United States over the war in Iraq. But on domestic issues, most people consider him a failure.

While his rhetoric embraced lofty objectives, critics say Chirac presided over a general sense of national decline and loss of influence. He was never able to get his promised economic reforms through, backing down every time protesters took to the streets. In 2005, Chirac was president when riots engulfed French suburbs and French voters delivered him a humiliating personal defeat by voting no to the European constitution for which he had campaigned.

But Chirac always seemed to bounce back. Filmmaker Karl Zero, who produced Being Jacques Chirac, a documentary that portrays the president as a conniving good ol' boy, says what kept Chirac going were not his principals, but his insatiable appetite for power.

Before becoming the 22nd president of France, Chirac served twice as prime minister and spent 20 years as mayor of Paris.

Despite his many ups and downs, Chirac has remained a popular figure. His lack of intellectual pretension, his gargantuan appetite for wine and food and his deep love for the French countryside have ensured him a solid base of affection. One poll cites Chirac as the person most French people would like to have dinner with.

Christine Okrent, a political commentator at television France 3, said Chirac was also unwavering on the issue of anti-Semitism.

"He's always been extremely forthcoming on the extreme right and anti-Semitism," Okrent said. "...What is currently called sort of neo-fascist attitudes and racist attitudes. And on that he's been absolutely ... great."

Chirac was the first head of state to recognize and apologize for France's deportation of Jews in World War II. In 2005, he traveled to Auschwitz with French deportees to mark the 60th anniversary of the camp's liberation. He also created a national day of remembrance for the victims of slavery.

Perhaps he will be best remembered, say admirers, for his quest to reconcile France with its history.



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