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Last Updated: Thursday, 1 June 2006, 03:27 GMT 04:27 UK
French film satirises Chirac

By Caroline Wyatt
BBC News, Paris

A new film has opened in France making fun of President Jacques Chirac - a mocking documentary called Dans la Peau de Jacques Chirac (Being Jacques Chirac).

President Jacques Chirac
The film portrays Chirac as a president who wasted opportunities

These are difficult days for the French president, after 11 years in office - beset by allegations of a political smear campaign, and seen by some as the embodiment of French decline.

Yet even as the butt of comedy, the 73-year-old Mr Chirac comes over as not just as a rogue - but also a surprisingly sympathetic figure.

The "mockumentary" mixes real footage of the president with a voice-over by a Chirac imitator in a portrait of his long career that is certainly mocking, sometimes affectionate but ultimately political poison.

Journalist Karl Zero directed the film, and terms it an accurate, if irreverent picture of a man loved and loathed in equal measure.

"For us, he's an actor first and foremost. He should have been an actor - he would have been the best," he smiles.

"He was exceptionally good-looking when he was young, he was seductive - and he believed in absolutely nothing. He could have played any role. And that's what he's done his whole life. Sadly for France, he chose politics, not acting."

He certainly did, extremely successfully, and the French people chose Mr Chirac again and again at election time, to the bewilderment of his many critics both on the left and on his own side, the centre-right.

Those critics accuse him of everything from fraud to an utter failure to reform France - whether as prime minister under Francois Mitterrand or as president since 1995.

'Visceral appeal'

And yet film-maker Karl Zero admits to a sneaking affection for the man he portrays as a political rogue.

"His presidency has been very bad but he's always been a genius at getting into power, because he has this strength," he said.

We are in the world of Shakespeare now, and the king is alone because he politically killed off any rivals and many friends. He is very alone
Journalist Franz-Olivier Giesbert

"He throws himself into the crowd. He loves meeting old ladies, small children. He likes touching people, he grabs them and embraces them - he's got this visceral appeal. And people vote using their gut instincts, not their brains."

So what have movie-goers made of this rather less than respectful view of their president's life?

"I liked it - it was funny, and I found out a lot about Jacques Chirac," said one younger film-goer.

"It's a comedy and a tragedy at the same time. I laughed but then I felt sad, because this isn't fiction, it is our reality," said a rather more disillusioned middle-aged viewer.

That view reflects a wider scepticism in France these days about President Chirac's achievements while in office.

One journalist who knows Mr Chirac well recently revealed his own secrets in a scathing book entitled The Tragedy Of Jacques Chirac.

Franz-Olivier Giesbert scandalised France by publishing his private conversations with Mr Chirac, but he insists he is no enemy of the president - just a disappointed citizen.

So how does he think Mr Chirac will be remembered by the French people - when he finally leaves the Elysee Palace next year?

"As a nice, decent man, who did not do anything," Mr Giesbert said.

"He was there a long time and he has great qualities, but he is a conservative. He does not like risk. He will leave behind the new museum at Quai Branly, some speeches and that's all."

Yet how can Mr Giesbert explain Mr Chirac's political success?

"It's impossible not like this man. But I think he's sad and now he's old," he said.

"He doesn't like the idea of being old. We are in the world of Shakespeare now, and the king is alone because he politically killed off any rivals and many friends. He is very alone."

Tough verdict

Today, President Chirac does indeed appear a lonely man whose reign is drawing to a close, with a few loyal allies - and with his enemies, and possible successors, gathering at the gates of the palace.

As the film reminds its audience, this is a leader who might have been put under judicial investigation, had it not been for his position as president.

His main achievement, many in France believe, was not at home but abroad, embodying France on the world stage and standing up to the US and Britain over the war on Iraq.

"What was most important for French foreign policy but also for French society was having a president saying no... I think this reinforced the view that after all... we have the right to be different from the Americans," political analyst Roland Cayrol, head of the CSA polling agency, said.

"For the rest, on Europe, you can't tell, on the French economic or social or political scene, you can't tell. I think that the balance sheet on Chirac will be severe - not only among the population but among historians as well."

The film may make audiences laugh, but ultimately, it delivers a harsh verdict on the man it portrays as a superb political operator who nonetheless presided over a decade of wasted opportunities, leaving France little better off than when he first started his giddy ascent to power.

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