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Chirac: Distinguished career ends on sour note

By Bryony Jones, CNN
December 15, 2011 -- Updated 1913 GMT (0313 HKT)
Jacques Chirac, a former mayor of Paris and prime minister of France, served as the country's president from 1995 until 2007.
Jacques Chirac, a former mayor of Paris and prime minister of France, served as the country's president from 1995 until 2007.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Former French president Jacques Chirac convicted on corruption charges
  • Chirac served as mayor of Paris, prime minister and president over the course of four decades
  • High profile opponent of "illegitimate and illegal" U.S.-led war in Iraq
  • Career politician retired in 2007, two years after suffering minor stroke

(CNN) -- Jacques Chirac is the former French president best known for his staunch opposition to the war in Iraq -- a position that put him at odds with his U.S. counterpart, George W. Bush.

But the 79-year-old's reputation as a career politician, one of a handful who dominated the French political scene for decades, is now tainted by his conviction on corruption charges.

Chirac was born in Paris in 1932, the son of a bank worker. He studied in his home city, and at Harvard University's summer school, before taking up a career in the civil service.

He was elected to France's parliament, the National Assembly, in 1967 and served as minister for agriculture and minister of the interior before being named as prime minister in 1974.

He held the role for two years before personal and professional differences with then-President Valery Giscard d'Estaing prompted him to resign. After leaving office he formed a new political party, Rally for the Republic (RPR).

French ex-president Chirac's trial
Chirac found guilty on corruption charges

A year later, in 1977, he was elected mayor of Paris -- it is from his time in this position that the embezzlement charges he was found guilty of on Thursday stem.

He campaigned for the presidency in 1981, but he and Giscard d'Estaing split the conservative vote, and the Socialist Party's Francois Mitterrand won the election instead.

Chirac was appointed prime minister for a second time in 1986 as part of a power-sharing agreement with Mitterrand, after a coalition of center-right parties won a slim majority in the National Assembly.

After a second unsuccessful presidential run in 1988, he finally won the race for France's top job in 1995, beating Socialist Party candidate Lionel Jospin.

In the run-up to France joining the euro, Chirac backed a series of unpopular austerity measures, which prompted strikes, and led to his conservative coalition losing its parliamentary majority in 1997, forcing him into "cohabitation" with Jospin, who became his PM.

In 2002, he was elected for a second term with a landslide win over far-right politician Jean Marie Le Pen, after socialist candidate Jospin's shock defeat in the first round of voting.

Weeks later, Chirac survived an assassination attempt when a neo-Nazi gunman fired a rifle at his open-top car during the annual Bastille Day parade.

The French leader was a vocal opponent of U.S.-led plans to intervene in Iraq, threatening to veto any U.N. Security Council resolution authorizing an invasion of the country; when the coalition went ahead with military action in the absence of a resolution, he condemned the action as "illegitimate and illegal."

His opposition to the war made him -- and his nation -- the target of criticism and even ridicule in the U.S., with French products and companies boycotted, and French fries replaced by "Freedom fries."

While his stance on Iraq proved popular with some, both at home and abroad, other factors were hitting his approval ratings.

In 2004 his former PM Alain Juppe was convicted of misappropriating public funds. Chirac, too, was accused of involvement in corruption, but he was immune from prosecution for the term of his presidency.

The following year, riots broke out in the suburbs of Paris and other cities, prompted by anger at discrimination and high youth unemployment.

In 2007, two years after suffering a mild stroke, he announced his retirement from politics; his longtime rival, Nicolas Sarkozy won the presidential race later that year.

Chirac is married, with two daughters and a foster daughter. He is reported to be suffering from a "severe" and "irreversible" neurological problem, which prevented him from appearing at his trial.

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