Beloved Chirac's final days tainted by graft conviction
He held the three most prestigious executive posts in France and still commands extraordinary public affection, but Jacques Chirac shuffles off the national stage shamed by a criminal conviction.
The 79-year-old was a monument of the French right for 40 years, serving as a minister, prime minister, mayor of Paris and president, keeping one step ahead of anti-corruption magistrates until Thursday's judgement.
He never attended the trial, at which he was convicted of paying political operatives from city hall coffers, as his doctors revealed that he suffers from memory loss and "severe and irreversible" neurological problems.
In the four-and-a-half years since he left office, his opinion poll approval ratings soared as he adopted a laid-back lifestyle as a cheerful elder statesman, enjoying a comfortable retirement.
But when he entered politics he was known for his killer instinct, ruthless ambition and winning ways with women and the electorate alike.
He has been a central figure since 1967, when he was labour minister to President Georges Pompidou, who nicknamed him "my bulldozer". The following year the government would have to face down the May 68 uprising.
Chirac's career took him from ministry to ministry, never quitting office, until in 1974 he served as prime minister to then president Valery Giscard d'Estaing.
But Chirac's pre-presidential career was most marked by his 18 years as mayor of Paris, a powerful position that allowed him to set up a formidable political network and raise money -- and hire people -- for his campaigns.
It was during this period -- between 1990 and 1995 --- that saw him put members of his Gaullist party, the RPR, on the city payroll illegally, as they were working for his political operation and not the municipality.
He made two unsuccessful bids for the presidency in 1981 and 1988 before finally swapping city hall for the Elysee in 1995.
His first term in office was not a success. Having made the major error of dissolving parliament and calling an election, he saw it fall to the left and was forced to govern in an uneasy "cohabitation" with the Socialists.
In 2002 he scored a stroke of luck, finding himself in the second round of the presidential election against far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who beat Socialist challenger Lionel Jospin but was too extreme for most voters.
Chirac romped home with a vast score, buoyed by left-wing voters who decided, in words of protest slogans: "Better the crook than the fascist."
He was already being stalked by magistrates and, while his office gave him immunity from prosecution, was frequently embarrassed by leaked stories of his fabulously excessive lifestyle as mayor and of a string of affairs.
He was lampooned on the satirical television puppet show Les Guignols as caped anti-hero "Super-liar" or as a gangster rapper bathing in a bath of stolen money, but somehow never completely lost public affection.
Chirac was seen as a warm, fatherly figure "more capable of winning power than wielding it". His vocal opposition to the 2003 US invasion of Iraq cost him friends in Washington, but was wildly popular at home.
His own political journey had been varied. He came into politics on the left, but swiftly converted to Gaullism's conservative nationalist ideals.
Over the years he has shifted from a liberal economic stance to a more interventionist one. He has been both for and against European integration.
He has sometimes appeared to be on the right of the right -- as when he declared that some French families could not stand the "noise and smell" of Arab neighbours -- and sometimes been seen as a bulwark against extremism.
In France he likes to be the man of the people, appearing more comfortable in public than his prickly successor Nicolas Sarkozy, attending farm shows, swilling beer and enjoying hearty meals of cow's head.
But he also has an intellectual side -- a passion for Asian culture which culminated in his gift of a huge museum of primitive art to Paris. He has set up a foundation dedicated to sustainable development and cultural dialogue.
In retirement, he lives with his long-suffering and equally popular wife Bernadette in a luxury apartment overlooking the Seine, paid for by the family of his late friend Lebanese ex-premier Rafiq Hariri who was assassinated in 2005 .
Chirac spends his summer holidays in the south of France with millionaire business tycoon Francois Pinault, and often spends time at Bernadette's chateau in the rural idyll of the Correze.
And, with 70 percent of the public still holding a positive view of him despite the scandals, he can afford to relax.
© 2011 AFP