Christophe Girard, who is responsible for cultural matters at Paris City Hall, announced Chabrol's death. No cause was given.
"Le Beau Serge," made in 1957, helped establish the New Wave, which would include such influential directors as Jean-Luc Godard and Francois Truffaut.
"He had really a remarkable career, very long and productive," film critic Kevin Thomas said Sunday. "He was absolutely a master at skewering the mores and hypocrisies of the upper bourgeoisie.… Many of the films are about the terrible things that superficially proper people can do."
Chabrol was a great admirer of Alfred Hitchcock, whose work Chabrol's was frequently compared to. He and fellow New Wave director Eric Rohmer, who died in January, published a study of Hitchcock in 1957.
"But Chabrol's films are unmistakably his own," Thomas said in a 1977 Times profile of the director.
Times film critic Kenneth Turan, reviewing Chabrol's film "Betty" in 1993, said his "austerity as a director has kept him from becoming the kind of sentimental favorite his colleague Francois Truffaut was in this country. Yet by returning again and again … to themes of repression and sexuality, Chabrol has achieved a kind of control of his material that is remarkable."
Chabrol's films "were on the surface very conventional," Turan said Sunday. "He made a lot of icy thrillers that have a sense of boundless coldness that can be found in human behavior. They're really intense character studies, they don't give human nature the benefit of doubt."
The Cannes Film Festival's Thierry Fremaux told French television that Chabrol "had a much more classic style" than some of the other New Wave filmmakers. "But in this classicism there was such an audacity, such freedom and erudition that I think — and history will tell — that his thrillers … will remain something totally unique in French cinema," he said.
Prime Minister Francois Fillon said that "French cinema has lost one of its maestros."
Chabrol's films included "Les Biches" in 1968 and "Le Boucher" in 1970, one of many films with his second wife, Stephane Audran, as well as the 2000 mystery "Merci pour le chocolat," with actress Isabelle Huppert, who was one of his favorite actresses and worked in several of his films.
Thomas said the films with Huppert provided Chabrol with a career resurgence "that gave him a whole new burst of recognition."
Chabrol's last feature film, "Bellamy" with Gerard Depardieu, was released last year.
"I like using the thriller genre because when people go see a thriller, unless it's really worthless, they never say, 'We've wasted our time,' " he told the New York Times in 2003. "You make a film to distract people, to interest them, perhaps to make them think, perhaps to help them be a little less naive, a little better than they were."
Chabrol was born in Paris on June 24, 1930. The son of a pharmacist, he studied law but was drawn to film and worked as a publicist for 20th Century Fox.
Writing for the influential French film journal Cahiers du cinema, Chabrol and other future New Wave directors began attacking the French films and embracing such American directors as Hitchcock. "They blamed the decadence of the French film industry on the inertia of the 'old guard' of directors," Ephraim Katz wrote in "The Film Encyclopedia" (2001).
Chabrol had not yet turned 30 when "Le Beau Serge," the story of a man's return to his native village after a long absence, was released. The start of his film career was aided by an inheritance that his wife received.
Chabrol, who was rarely seen without his trademark pipe or Cuban cigar, "was a very droll, witty man," Thomas said.
He wrote or collaborated on many of his films' scripts and made Hitchcock-style cameos in films, including his own.
In 2004, he was awarded the European Film Award for the body of his work.
Chabrol was married three times and his survivors include three sons.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.