Chirac Leaves Behind a Mixed Legacy French people agree Chirac was an energetic and effective leader on the world stage, but indecisive and weak when it came to enacting reforms at home.
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Chirac Leaves Behind a Mixed Legacy

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Chirac Leaves Behind a Mixed Legacy

Chirac Leaves Behind a Mixed Legacy

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This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

Coming up, so what's Prince Harry's last name anyway? But first, people of France vote tomorrow Sunday for a new president. Whoever wins, the socialist Segolene Royal or the conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, they'll replace the man who's been in office for 12 years. Jacques Chirac will step down on May 16.

Eleanor Beardsley reports from Paris on the legacy of the 22nd president to France.

ELEANOR BEARDSLEY: When Jacques Chirac was first elected to 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.

President JACQUES CHIRAC (France): (Through translator) My dear compatriots, I address you tonight with love and pride in my heart for France. France is a voice that rises above individual interests, an ardent nation engaged in the fight for justice and peace. My countrymen, I love France passionately and I put my whole heart, energy and force into serving her and you. It has been the engagement of my lifetime.

BEARDSLEY: Like his political mentor Charles De Gaulle, Chirac believes that France has a unique role to play on the world stage. He sees France as a defender of human rights and, while in power, Chirac 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 ties with the Arab world and Africa. 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.

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BEARDSLEY: 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 he had campaigned for.

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BEARDSLEY: 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 old boy, says what kept Chirac going were not his principles, but his insatiable appetite for power.

Mr. KARL ZERO (Filmmaker): (Through translator) Jacques Chirac is, above al, a great actor. His legacy would be that of a weather (unintelligible), someone who changes positions a million times. He didn't believe in anything at all except perhaps himself. But no matter how much he botched things, he always came out smelling like roses.

BEARDSLEY: Chirac served twice as prime minister and spent 20 years as mayor of Paris. Charges of corruption dating back to a town hall kickback scheme could still come back to haunt him after he loses his presidential immunity. 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 Ockrent, a political commentator at television France 3, says Chirac was also unwavering on one issue.

Ms. CHRISTINE OCKRENT (Commentator, France 3): He's always been extremely forthcoming on the extreme right and anti-Semitism. And on that, he's been absolutely, you know, great and really okay.

BEARDSLEY: 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.

For NPR News, I'm Eleanor Beardsley in Paris.

SIMON: And to see a timeline of the highs and lows of Jacques Chirac presidency, you can go to our Web site

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