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PARIS (Reuters) - Clint Eastwood paid homage to French cinema after the Cannes Film Festival gave a special lifetime achievement award to the evergreen Hollywood legend, who is presenting his latest film at the age of 78.
"France's cineastes here in this country have always been very supportive of me all along the way," he told reporters after a special ceremony in a chic restaurant off the Champs-Elysees. "I'm very lucky to have known all of you."
The world's biggest film festival gave a special Golden Palm award to Eastwood, whose film "Changeling" starring Angelina Jolie was shown at Cannes last year.
The film failed to win one of the major prizes but Cannes President Gilles Jacob said the festival had long wanted to present a special award to Eastwood, who will not be on the Croisette this year.
"With this highly symbolic gesture, the festival is matching the unanimous enthusiasm that both the public and critics have for you," Jacob said. "It sometimes happens that someone is a great artist and a frenzied egotist. That is not the case with you."
France maintains a complex love-hate relationship with Hollywood. But Eastwood has been revered for his roles as the taciturn gunman of Sergio Leone's 1960s spaghetti westerns, the hardboiled detective Dirty Harry and in more sympathetic roles of late such as the repentant gunslinger in "Unforgiven."
In Paris to present his latest film, "Gran Torino," in which he plays a reactionary war veteran forced to come to terms with Asian neighbors, he had warm words for French cinema.
"France is where the cinema began with the Lumière brothers," he said. "It's the first country which approached cinema as an art form."
"Gran Torino" has won warm reviews in France and attracted some 18,000 film fans on the first afternoon of its release on Wednesday, according to distributors Warner, the best ever start for an Eastwood film in France.
The actor-director, whose career took off after his 1959 debut as Rowdy Yates in the TV series Rawhide, thought back with affection to his first visit to the French capital to promote what is still one of his best-loved films.
"I came for the first time in Paris in the mid '60s at the Rex theater for 'A Fistful of Dollars', a small film from an unknown director with an unknown actor," he said.
"Fortunately it went over and Sergio Leone became a favorite here," he said.
Writing by James Mackenzie, editing by Paul Casciato