PARIS, Sept 30, 2019 (BSS/AFP) – Dozens of world leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin, on Monday paid their final respects to ex-president Jacques Chirac as France held a national day of mourning for the popular former head of state.
Putin, former US president Bill Clinton and other dignitaries joined President Emmanuel Macron for a funeral service at Saint-Sulpice church in Paris, a day after 7,000 people queued to view Chirac’s coffin at Invalides military hospital and museum.
Chirac’s death on Thursday aged 86 prompted a flood of tributes to the centre-right politician whose career spanned four decades, capped by 12 years as president from 1995 to 2007.
But it also sparked questions about how much the consummate political operator actually achieved and again threw the spotlight on a 2011 conviction for graft over his time as Paris mayor.
Speaking to reporters after a commemorative lunch at the Elysee Palace, Clinton recalled Chirac as “always upbeat, always positive, always very French, very protective of French interests but in a way that brought people together not drove them apart.”
As NATO allies, the US and France had “made it possible to end the Balkan wars”, he said, adding “I’ll miss Chirac, I liked him and I’ll miss him.”
Other world leaders attending the ceremony included Qatar Emir Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al-Thani, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Harari whose assassinated father Rafiq was a close friend of Chirac, and German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier.
Clinton’s coffin, draped in a French flag, was carried into the church by his former bodyguards, to applause from around 1,000 onlookers lining the square outside.
After the hour-long service he was taken to Montparnasse cemetery and buried next to his eldest daughter Laurence, who died in 2016 aged 58 from anorexia.
– ‘France paradoxical’ –
Florien, a 26-year-old ambulance driver, rose before dawn to travel to the capital to pay tribute to the late president, who also served two stints as prime minister.
“He was close to ordinary people,” Florien told AFP.
A minute of silence was observed in all public institutions and schools on Monday afternoon.
The day began with a private mass at Invalides attended by Chirac’s 86-year-old widow Bernadette, and a military honours ceremony presided over by Macron.
Chirac’s coffin was then driven across Paris to Saint-Sulpice, where Paris archbishop Michel Aupetit eulogised him as a “warm man” with “a real love of people”.
As his health failed in his final years, Chirac’s popularity, which fell as low as 16 percent when he was president, rose.
A poll in Le Journal du Dimanche newspaper at the weekend showed the French consider him their best president of modern times, alongside Charles de Gaulle.
“France is always paradoxal: it wants kings and then cuts off their head, it forces out the living and consecrates the dead,” Socialist ex-president Francois Hollande told France Inter radio on Monday.
One of Chirac’s most significant steps on the international stage was his opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Washington was represented at the funeral by its ambassador to France.
But Putin worked intensely with the Chirac in the first phase of his own presidency and the pair were notably united in their opposition to the Iraq invasion.
Clinton recalled that Chirac had been “a big supporter of expanding the G7 to include Russia”.
In unusually gushing comments in an interview with The Financial Times in June, Putin said Chirac was the modern world leader who had impressed him the most, saying he was “a true intellectual, a real professor.”
Another key international ally of Chirac, former German chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, was however absent, in what sources said was an organisational misunderstanding as places had been reserved for him at the service and Elysee lunch.
– Personality trumped policy –
Much of France’s current political class attended Monday’s service including three other former French presidents: 93-year-old Valery Giscard d’Estaing, Chirac’s former protege Nicolas Sarkozy and Hollande.
Far-right leader Marine Le Pen pulled out after the Chirac family opposed her presence.
Chirac also drew praise for being the first French president to acknowledge the country’s role in the deportation of Jews during World War II, and for warning of the risk of climate change before it rose high on the political agenda.
But the latter years of his presidency were also characterised by political and economic stagnation.
“One cannot say that he really transformed France. It’s his personality that made him popular,” political historian Jean Garrigues told AFP.