France bids former president Chirac farewell

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The coffin of late French President Jacques Chirac is seen at the Hotel des Invalides, during a popular national tribute in Paris, France, September 29, 2019. REUTERS/Benoit Tessier

A coffin bearing the body of former French president Jacques Chirac, who died last week, received a solemn send-off on Monday from a military honor guard and a band playing Chopin’s Funeral March.

After two days of lying-in-state at the Hotel Des Invalides in central Paris, Chirac’s coffin, draped in the French flag, was carried out into the courtyard of the building by 10 members of France’s elite Republican Guard.

A sober looking President Emmanuel Macron stood over the casket and bowed his head, before it was loaded onto a hearse for the procession to Saint-Sulpice church, where nearly 2,000 family members and dignitaries were gathered for a funeral service.

Scores of current and former foreign leaders, including Russian President Vladimir Putin and former U.S. president Bill Clinton, were due in the church to bid farewell to Chirac, who died last week aged 86.

Chirac was feted by many French people for asserting the country’s role as a global player and for opposing the 2003 invasion of Iraq, while a conviction after he left office for misusing public funds did little to tarnish his image.

Later on Monday, Macron will host the visiting leaders at a lunch at the Elysee Palace, though Putin was expected to fly out before the lunch, according to the Elysee Palace.

Other leaders at the funeral included German President Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Lebanese Prime Minister Saad al-Hariri and European Commission head Jean-Claude Juncker. Prince Edward, youngest son of Britain’s Queen Elizabeth, also attended.

Heavy heart

Chirac is to be buried at the Montparnasse cemetery in Paris, in a plot next to his daughter Laurence, who died in 2016.

Over the weekend, thousands of people queued outside the Hotel des Invalides to pay tribute to Chirac. His coffin was on display, draped in the French flag and in front of a large photograph of a smiling Chirac.

Chirac was “someone who had a different idea of his role, of France’s role in the international community, who showed it in difficult situations,” said Remu Issons, a Paris resident who was among the crowd at the lying-in.

Crowds gathered too at Paris town hall, where Chirac served for 18 years as mayor. “My heart is heavy,” said Anne Firmin, who was looking at a display of photographs of Chirac at the height of his political power. “For me, it’s my whole youth.”

Born in Paris, Chirac was from his earliest years a member of the French establishment, but he was also known for his charisma and his knack for connecting with ordinary people outside the urban elite.

Serving as president from 1995 to 2007, his defiant opposition to the U.S. led invasion of Iraq put him at odds with then U.S. President George W. Bush, and with British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

He earned the nickname “Houdini” for the way he managed to escape a jail term despite the allegations of misuse of funds that dogged him for years.

In the last years of his life, he suffered from neurological problems and was rarely seen in public. He lived quietly with his wife, Bernadette, in a Left Bank apartment, and worked on his memoirs.

Far right leader Marine Le Pen said Chirac’s family had barred her from attending the funeral. Chirac had faced off against Marine’s father, Jean-Marie, in a runoff in the 2002 presidential election.

In his last speech before leaving office in 2007, Chirac had warned against the “poison” of racism, extremism and anti-Semitism.

Olusola Akintonde