Gorbachev, Obama lead tributes to 'iconic' Thatcher

PARIS (AFP) - Mr Mikhail Gorbachev, Mr Helmut Kohl and Mr Bill Clinton were among the former friends and foes who paid tribute on Monday to Mrs Margaret Thatcher, praising the fearlessness and fierce determination of an "iconic" leader.

The "Iron Lady" was a polarising figure in Britain and beyond, but foreign leaders were unanimous in acknowledging her place in 20th-century history, with Mr 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".

Pope Francis said he recalled "with appreciation the Christian values which underpinned her commitment to public service and to the promotion of freedom among the family of nations". Thatcher died of a stroke on Monday aged 87.

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.

In Glasgow and in the edgy south London neighbourhood of Brixton, enemies of the late premier held small street parties to celebrate her death, with some holding placards saying "Rejoice - Thatcher is dead".

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 Mr David Hopper of the National Union of Mineworkers.

Mrs Thatcher's government crushed a year-long miners' strike in 1985 and forced them 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.

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

Mr Gerry Adams, leader of the Sinn Fein republican party, said she had played a "shameful role" in the Troubles in Northern Ireland.

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 Mrs Thatcher's "contributions" to the growth of the European Union, despite her deep scepticism over increasing ties with Europe.

"Ronnie and Margaret were political soulmates"

Among her contemporaries, former Soviet leader Gorbachev, who held frequent meetings with Mrs 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," said the Nobel Peace Prize winner.

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 Mrs 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," Mr Walesa told Agence France-Presse.

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

Mrs 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".

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, the ruling African National Congress (ANC) recalled the differences between Mrs Thatcher and those fighting against apartheid in the 1980s.

Mts 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 conceded that she was "a leader of note".

There was praise too from Hollywood, with US actress Meryl Streep, who won an Oscar for playing Mrs Thatcher in the 2011 movie The Iron Lady, hailing her as a trailblazer for women.

"Margaret Thatcher was a pioneer, willingly or unwillingly, for the role of women in politics. It is hard to imagine a part of our current history that has not been affected by measures she put forward," Streep said.