Gorbachev, Clinton lead deluge of tributes to Thatcher

PARIS (AFP) – Mikhail Gorbachev, Helmut Kohl and Bill Clinton were among the former friends and foes who paid tribute Monday to Margaret Thatcher, praising the fearlessness and determination of an “iconic” leader.

The “Iron Lady” was a polarising figure in Britain and beyond during her time in office, but foreign leaders were unanimous in acknowledging her place in 20th-century history, with Barack Obama mourning a “true friend of America”.

Germany’s ex-chancellor Helmut Kohl, considered the father of Germany’s 1990 reunification, said he “greatly valued Margaret Thatcher for her love of freedom, her incomparable openness, honesty and straightforwardness”.

Israeli President Shimon Peres said: “There are people, there are ideas. Occasionally those two come together to create vision. …(Thatcher) showed how far a person can go with strength of character, determination and a clear vision.”

Flowers from admirers began piling up outside her London home soon after her death was announced, but left-wingers quickly began planning jubilant parties, proving that the late premier was as divisive in death as she was in life.

Britain’s coalminers were among the fiercest of her foes — and for one senior mining official marking his birthday on Monday, her death was the icing on his cake.

“I’m having a drink to it right now,” said David Hopper, regional secretary of the National Union of Mineworkers in northeast England.

Thatcher’s government crushed a year-long coal miners’ strike in 1985. The miners were forced to accept sweeping pit closures, in one of the bitterest episodes in British industrial history.

France’s Socialist Prime Minister Jean-Marc Ayrault paid tribute to “a great head of state” but also had some harsh words for the policies she enacted while in power from 1979 to 1990.

“It was another time, a time that was called the Thatcher years, the Reagan years, which caused significant economic and social damage, and excessive liberalisation,” he said.

For his part, former French president Jacques Chirac said: “It’s known that we had disagreements in the past … But I must add that these differences in views never prevented mutual respect.”

Right-wingers have hailed Thatcher as having hauled Britain out of the economic doldrums, but the left accuses her of dismantling traditional industry, claiming her reforms helped unpick the fabric of society.

But on Monday most reaction to her death — at least from abroad — was positive.

In Brussels, European Commission head Jose Manuel Barroso paid tribute to Thatcher’s “contributions” to the growth of the European Union, despite her deep scepticism over increasing ties with Europe.

– “A leader of rare character” –

Among her contemporaries, former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, who held frequent meetings with Thatcher in the 1980s as the Cold War drew to a close, said she would go down in history for her commitment and resolve.

“Margaret Thatcher was a great politician and a bright individual. She will go down in our memory and in history,” the Nobel Peace Prize winner said in a statement released by his foundation.

Thatcher, who once famously said of Gorbachev that “this is a man I can do business with,” died of stroke on Monday aged 87.

Fellow Cold War hero Lech Walesa, the Polish dockyard worker whose pro-democracy Solidarity movement helped create the first cracks in the Soviet system in the 1980s, said Thatcher helped bring down communism in his own country.

“She was a great personality who has done many things for the world that contributed to the fall of communism in Poland and Eastern Europe,” Walesa told AFP.

Her US colleagues of the time also called the baroness a towering figure who helped changed the course of the last century.

US former president George H. W. Bush, who served as both vice president and White House chief when Thatcher was in power, called her “a leader of rare character … whose principles in the end helped shape a better, freer world”.

Nancy Reagan, the wife of the late US president Ronald Reagan, said that “Ronnie and Margaret were political soulmates, committed to freedom and resolved to end communism”.

And US former president Bill Clinton hailed her as an “iconic stateswoman” who lived a “remarkable life as she broke barriers, defied expectations, and led her country”.

Even those with reason to remember the often divisive figure less fondly were quick to pay tribute to her huge personality.

In South Africa, a spokesman for the ruling African National Congress recalled the differences between Thatcher and those fighting against the apartheid regime in the 1980s.

Thatcher famously argued that the ANC was a “terrorist” organisation.

“She failed to acknowledge the ANC as the rightful party of governance, but was out of touch with the British people on that issue. It’s water under the bridge,” said ANC spokesman Keith Khoza.

But he added that she was “a leader of note, despite disagreements in policy between her and the ANC”.

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