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Tuesday, 23 October, 2001, 11:56 GMT 12:56 UK
Chirac wife reveals marriage problems
Bernadette Chirac
Bernadette Chirac: "Nowadays people just leave"
By Hugh Schofield in Paris

For his campaign to recapture the French presidency in six months' time, Jacques Chirac has enlisted the help of his closest ally: his wife.

Bernadette Chirac - whom he married 45 years ago - has been content in the past to follow Mr Chirac's career from behind the scenes, jealously guarding their privacy and eschewing the attractions of life as the country's first lady.

I was the prisoner of certain family traditions - convention meant that in this kind of situation you put up a front and just kept going

Bernadette Chirac on staying married
But with the publication this week of a book of interviews with her - and a television appearance on Sunday - Madame Chirac has emerged from the shadows, speaking with unusual frankness about her religious faith, her family and her relationship with her husband.

In perhaps the most revealing section of the book - which is entitled simply "Conversation" - she implicitly admits Mr Chirac's past infidelities, telling how she worked to keep the family together for the sake of their two daughters.

Many in France are seeing the book as an image-building gambit ahead of next April's presidential elections.

Jacques Chirac
Chirac: Handsome and enormously successful with women, says wife
"There is no doubt that Bernadette has become one of the elements of her husband's campaign," said Le Monde newspaper.

Mr Chirac's media advisers - who include their daughter Claude - have until now colluded to keep Bernadette in the background, fearing that her conservative persona would put off the more progressive electorate that the president has wished to attract.

But now the calculation appears to have been made that her appeal could draw in many right-wing voters, who might otherwise choose candidates such as the veteran Gaullist Charles Pasqua or the family values campaigner Christine Boutin.

He is not a money man - money has never been any kind of motivation for him

Bernadette Chirac
In "Conversation", which was written with a leading conservative magazine editor, Mrs Chirac speaks of her admiration for Pope John Paul II and her opposition to abortion.

"I wish our society would fight for the respect of life - in all its forms," she says.

She tells for the first time about the difficulties posed by her elder daughter Laurence, who after contracting meningitis as a child has suffered from severe mental disorders. And she is at pains to scotch the widespread reports of tensions at the Elysee Palace between her and Claude.

Claude Chirac
Claude Chirac: Reports of family tension are denied
But given the circumspection which such matters are accorded in France, the most interesting passage is her comment on her husband's amorous past. She speaks of the problems of living with a "handsome" man, who has "enormous success" with women.

"Nowadays at the first difficulty people just leave each other. But as far as I was concerned, I hesitated because I had children, but also because I was the prisoner of certain family traditions.

Napoleon and Josephine

"Convention meant that in this kind of situation you put up a front and just kept going. In any case I warned him often enough: the day Napoleon left Josephine, he lost everything," she says.

As for the allegations of her husband's financial impropriety while he was mayor of Paris, she says she has found the incessant investigations and speculations hard to live with.

"I find it profoundly unjust because he is a man who has devoted his entire life to public service. He is not a money man. Money has never been any kind of motivation for him. Never!" she says.

Bernadette Chirac, who like her husband is 68, was born into an aristocratic family. She is an elected councillor in their home department of Correze, and patron of several charities.

See also:

14 Jul 01 | From Our Own Correspondent
Chirac family drawn into probe
10 Oct 01 | Europe
Chirac wins immunity battle
04 Sep 01 | Europe
Chirac corruption inquiry halted
26 Jul 01 | Europe
Another setback for Chirac
18 Jul 01 | Europe
Chirac escapes sleaze questions
14 Jul 01 | Europe
Chirac hits back at critics
20 Jul 01 | Europe
Q & A: Chirac's corruption battle
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