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French queue at Elysee Palace to pay tribute to Chirac

Jacques Chirac, president from 1995 to 2007, died on Thursday aged 86 after a long period of ill health, with President Emmanuel Macron in an address to the nation praising 'a man whom we loved as much as he loved us'.

People queue in the courtyard of the Elysee presidential palace in Paris on 26 September 2019 to sign a condolence register for late former French President Jacques Chirac after the announcement of his death today at the age of 86 after a long battle with ill-health, his family said. Picture: AFP

PARIS - French people lined up at the presidential palace to pay their respects to former head of state Jacques Chirac on Friday, a giant of politics for three decades whose death sparked tributes to a complex but hugely charismatic leader.

Chirac, president from 1995 to 2007, died on Thursday aged 86 after a long period of ill health, with President Emmanuel Macron in an address to the nation praising "a man whom we loved as much as he loved us".

Even opponents hailed his charm and qualities as a political fighter, as well as how he stood up to Washington in 2003 by opposing the Iraq war.

But others also questioned how much he had actually achieved during a long period in office, with his career also shadowed by a graft conviction over his stint as Paris mayor.

Ahead of a public ceremony on Sunday, the French presidency threw open the doors of the Elysee Palace for anyone wanting to sign a book of condolence for Chirac.

Hundreds queued on Thursday evening with a long line stretching down the gravel courtyard which is normally strictly off limits to the public.

"He had a presence, he was charismatic - which later presidents are not," said Frenchman Pierre-Yves as he waited to sign the book overnight. "Jacques Chirac was the politician of my childhood," recalled Marion.

People were allowed in again on Friday morning.

"I express my admiration and tenderness for the last of the great presidents," read one tribute. "Thank you for fighting, thank you for this freedom and good spirits.

BURIAL ON MONDAY

A ceremony for members of the public will be held on Sunday at the Invalides memorial complex in Paris, the Elysee and his family announced.

This will be followed by a day of national mourning on Monday when a commemorative service will be held for him at the Saint Sulpice church in the Saint-Germain-des-Pres area of central Paris.

The former prime minister, mayor of Paris and president is then to be buried in the Montparnasse cemetery in a strictly private ceremony, Chirac's son-in-law Frederic Salat-Baroux told AFP.

Survived by his wife of over six decades Bernadette, he will be buried next to his daughter Laurence, who died in 2016.

Portraits of Chirac adorned the front pages of all France's newspapers with Le Parisien using the headline "So French. The adieu to the 'nice' president."

The Eiffel Tower also switched off its lights late on Thursday in a sign of respect.

EMBODIED FRANCE

The centre-right Chirac finally succeeded his long-time political rival, the Socialist Francois Mitterrand, in 1995 after two previously unsuccessful bids to secure the Elysee.

His death prompted intense discussions about his legacy to France, with commentators united in admiration of his wily political skills and homely style, but divided on what he achieved.

His reputation is also overshadowed by a conviction for graft dating to his time as mayor of Paris from 1977 to 1995, although it did not cause a major dent in his popularity.

After losing his presidential immunity, he became the first former head of state to go on trial in 2011 and was given a suspended jail term.

The beer-loving charmer, whose extramarital affairs were an open secret, had barely been seen in public in recent years. He suffered a stroke in 2005 and underwent kidney surgery in December 2013.

Chirac had always extolled his love of France and its modern leaders paid tribute above all to a man who had represented the values and symbols of his country.

"As a leader who was able to represent the nation in its diversity and complexity... president Chirac embodied a certain idea of France," said Macron, recalling how Chirac had himself paid an eloquent tribute to his old foe Mitterrand when he died in 1996.

Macron cited in particular Chirac's foreign policy choices, notably for refusing to take France to war in 2003 in the US-led invasion of Iraq without a UN mandate.

He said that Chirac was being mourned "not just across our own country" and that he had led an "independent and proud France, capable of rising up against an unjustified military intervention."

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