PARIS (AFP) — Two-term French president Jacques Chirac died Thursday at the age of 86 after a long battle with ill health, his family said, leading to tributes from across the political spectrum for a statesman who famously said "non" to the 2003 Iraq war.
The center-right Chirac, acknowledged even by foes as a supreme political fighter, rose to prominence as mayor of Paris before becoming prime minister and then serving as head of state from 1995 to 2007.
Former opponents and supporters hailed his common touch and enduring popularity, while world leaders including German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin acclaimed his service to France.
"He incarnated a France that was true to its universal values and to its historic role," said former president and one-time protege Nicolas Sarkozy, who added that "a part of my life has disappeared today."
His time at the Elysée Palace saw France adopt the euro single currency and, in a landmark moment for relations with Washington, loudly oppose the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.
This infuriated U.S. president George W. Bush and British prime minister Tony Blair, who pushed the invasion. But Blair hailed Chirac on Thursday as "a towering figure in French and European politics over many decades."
His death was announced by his son-in-law Frederic Salat-Baroux who told AFP he had passed away on Thursday morning at his home in Paris "surrounded by his family, peacefully."
He is expected to be given a state funeral.
The news led to intense discussion about Chirac's legacy to France, with commentators united in admiration of his wily political skills and homely style, but divided on what he achieved.
As a student he had been a Communist party activist and as a right-leaning politician he was known for his ideological flexibility, with economic policies that fluctuated — as did his views on European integration.
While he was hailed for standing up to the far-right — he defeated National Front presidential candidate Jean-Marie Le Pen in 2002 — he was also capable of fueling France's deep-rooted racial tensions.
"Having Spaniards, Poles and Portuguese people working here creates fewer problems than having Muslims and blacks," he said in a speech in 1991.
His legacy is also overshadowed by a conviction for graft dating to his time as mayor of Paris.
After losing his presidential immunity, he become the first former head of state to go on trial in 2011 and was given a suspended jail term.
"He's someone with a mixed record," political historian and author Jean Garrigues told AFP, adding that there was "a large reserve of goodwill towards him from the French people."