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Ex-French president Jacques Chirac, Iraq war foe and fan of U.S. food and culture, dies at age 86


Ex-French president Jacques Chirac — whose enthusiasm for American food and culture didn’t stop him from opposing President George W. Bush’s 2003 plan to wage war in Iraq — died Thursday at age 86.

“I know the U.S. perhaps better than most French people,” Chirac once told Time magazine. “I’ve studied there, worked as a forklift operator for Anheuser-Busch in St. Louis and as a soda jerk at Howard Johnson’s.”

He bragged in a speech in Chicago that he mastered making turkey sandwiches when he worked part-time at a Cambridge, Mass. HoJo’s in the early 1950s while he studied at Harvard.

He preferred smoking Winstons to French Gauloises, and a colleague once told People magazine that whenever he visited the U.S., Chirac insisted on stopping for a fast-food burger.

Chirac, an only child, was born in 1932 to a father was a bank manager and later executive of an airplane maker, and a mother who was a homemaker.

After completing his education and a stint in the French army, Chirac launched his political career in 1959 as an aide to French prime minister Georges Pompidou, who held that job while Charles de Gaulle was president.

Pompidou gave Chirac the Franglais nickname “Le bulldozer,” and admired him for his ability to get difficult jobs done.

Politically, Chirac was a descendant of de Gaulle, who led France’s resistance of the Nazis during World War II, fought to maintain the country’s status as a world power, and dominated French politics for decades.

Chirac supported Valery Giscard d’Estaing’s presidential candidacy in 1974, and upon Giscard’s victory was rewarded with the prime minister’s job. But Chirac abandoned Giscard two years later after deeming him too liberal on such issues as abortion and lowering the voting age to 18.

Chirac in 1977 became the first elected mayor of Paris in more than 100 years — previously the city was run by the national government, as top French politicians feared whoever got to be its mayor use the post as a springboard to power.

Which is what Chirac did. He spent much of his time as mayor maneuvering for the presidency, which he won in 1995.

Among his accomplishments was leading France into adopting the Euro, Europe’s multi-national currency.

Chirac’s opposition to the Iraq war in 2003 came with a soupçon of Gallic hauteur. He sometimes ended his calls with President Bush by saying: “Give my regards to your father!,” ex-president George H.W. Bush.

“To American ears, this salutation came across as a jab, suggesting that in Chirac’s eyes, the president of the United States was somehow not ripe for the office,” wrote Kurt Volker, a former Bush aide.

Chirac feared the U.S. had too much power in the world. “Any community with only one dominant power is always a dangerous one and provokes reactions,” he told Time.

He was keenly interested in other countries’ cultures.

Chirac was such a fan of Japanese sumo wrestling, he named his poodle “Sumo.” From 2000 to the time he left office in 2007, French ambassadors to Tokyo presented the “President of the Republic of France Cup” to sumo champions.

A French author once claimed that Chirac, a regular visitor to Japan, had a child out of wedlock with a Japanese woman. He was widely rumored to have had affairs.

In French, there are two words for “you.” Chirac’s wife told an interviewer in 2001 that she addressed her husband by the formal word “vous” rather than the intimate “tu.”

A French court convicted Chirac in 2011 of embezzling public money while he was mayor of Paris to illegally finance his political party. Chirac, who always claimed his innocence, was given a two-year suspended prison sentence. He never spent any time in jail.