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Monday, 25 March, 2002, 13:04 GMT
Wives provide contrast in French race
Bernadette Chirac
Bernadette Chirac (right): Classic first lady (Picture: AP)
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Hugh Schofield
By Hugh Schofield in Paris
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Polls in France show that many voters are bored by what they perceive to be the general similarity between the manifestos of the two front-runners in the presidential election - President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

But if it's contrast they want, they don't have to look far.


Frankly I find the role of wife a real pain

Sylviane Agacinski
The choice of first man might not inspire much passion, but when it comes to France's next first lady the alternatives offer a rich lesson in political sociology.

Enter stage right, in tweed skirt and sensible shoes: Bernadette Chirac - nee Chodron de Courcel - a 68-year-old aristocrat whose uncle was General de Gaulle's aide-de-camp and whose ancestors adorned the diplomatic corps when France was still a kingdom.

Then enter stage left, in a slinky number by Sonia Rykiel: Sylviane Agacinski - nee Agacinski - a 56-year-old feminist writer and teacher, from a family of immigrant Poles, with a son by France's world-famous structuralist philosopher Jacques Derrida.

Vous

It would be hard to imagine two more different women, each representative in her way of a strand of French society.

A buxom figure with coiffed blonde hair and a classic taste in clothes, Bernadette is traditional and Catholic.

Claude Chirac
Claude Chirac sees her mother as "fusty"
She and Jacques "vouvoient" each other in the Elysee palace - or in the chateau which is their home in the remote countryside of the Correze.

That is: though married for 46 years, they still use the formal "vous" form of the word "you".

They have two children, one of whom - Claude - is Mr Chirac's PR-consultant.

Claude is said to have a somewhat tense relationship with her mother, who she thinks gives Jacques a dangerously fusty image.

Indeed, she once banned Bernadette from attending a presidential lunch with a group of young people, because she feared she would send out the wrong vibes.

But recently Mr Chirac's campaign team have begun to see Bernadette as an electoral asset.

Thanks to her charity work for sick children and her cheerful personality, she is a popular figure - and her conservatism is reassuring to voters who might be attracted to dissident right-wing candidates.

Guru

Above all, having devoted her life to promoting her husband's career she is perfectly at ease in the subordinate role of presidential wife. She is a classic first lady.

Sylviane Agacinski
Sylviane Agacinski: Sveldt sophisticate (Picture: AP)
Compare and contrast with Ms Agacinski, who said recently: "Frankly I find the role of wife a real pain," and who makes it clear she sees no reason to exert herself to further Jospin's ambitions.

"When a man is elected, it's not his brother or his mother or his wife. Things have to remain separated," she said.

The author of several books - including "The politics of the sexes" and "A critique of egocentrism" - Ms Agacinski teaches philosophy at the School of Social Sciences in Paris, one of whose directors is the internationally renowned guru of deconstruction Jacques Derrida.

She and Derrida had a long relationship in the 1970s, and though it is not officially acknowledged, it is generally known that he is the father of her 17-year-old son Daniel.

A sveldt sophisticate, Agacinski moves naturally in France's left-wing beau monde. She met Jospin at the wedding of her actress sister, Sophie, in 1983 and married him 11 years later, becoming the step-mother of his own two children.

Tu

Needless to say, they "tutoient" (use the informal "tu").

There is no question that Agacinski holds greater appeal to the younger, more modern voter.

The danger is that by her haughty refusal to have anything to do with her husband's campaign she might alienate some middle-of-the road voters who think a presidential spouse has to act out the role.

So which is it to be: old money or nouveau chic? religion or philosophy? the practical or the abstract? cattle-farmers in the Correze or word-crunchers in Saint-Germain? Coco Chanel or Sonia Rykiel?

Bernadette or Sylviane?

See also:

21 Feb 02 | Europe
The French presidential choices
14 Jun 01 | Europe
Dirty French campaign kicks off
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