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Friday, 5 April, 2002, 12:57 GMT 13:57 UK
Sleaze leaves French voters cold
Paris Hotel de Ville (town hall)
The Chiracs ran up enormous bills while running Paris
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By BBC News Online's Sheila Barter
In Paris
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This is the scene of the crime, if one was ever committed.

And even if it was, does anyone care? Well, apparently not.

Jacques Chirac on the campaign trail in Bordeaux
Sleaze allegations don't seem to have harmed Chirac
The palatial hotel de ville is the official residence of the Mayor of Paris. It is where Jacques Chirac enjoyed an 18-year tenure before moving onwards and upwards to the presidency.

It is also where his detractors accuse him of corruption - either of direct involvement in a sleazy administration, or at least knowing what was going on.

With Mr Chirac in a neck-and-neck race for the French presidency, you might expect sleaze to be a major issue.

But his main rival, socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, has made nothing of it.

Even if he did, it seems that voters simply wouldn't care - or would see his intervention as a case of people, glasshouses and stones.

Inured to scandal

The absence of the corruption card from the campaign appears to be borne of a general cynicism about French politicians.


Coast-to-coast election reports

  1. Calais unmoved by presidential scrap
  2. Nanterre murders become election issue
  3. Crime and the French voter
  4. Sleaze leaves voters cold

"They're all as bad as each other," is just about the only view you can find on the streets.

"Everyone who goes into politics ends up rich," says one Paris waiter. "They're all the same, all over the world, not just in France. They're all thieves, pickpockets.

"No-one since Gandhi has gone into politics and stayed poor."

The French have a word for it - "magouilleurs" or schemers.

The word sums up a huge murky, grey expanse which everyone seems to believe lies at the centre of French political life.

Not just in national politics either. Hundreds of elected representatives across France, some of them mayors, are also under investigation for various alleged offences of corruption.

Cynicism on this level has not set in overnight.

Mitterrand's legacy

Political historians believe they have carbon-dated the problem to the Mitterrand age.

Apples in Paris
Applegate: The Chiracs spent enough to buy 100 kilos a day

The revered ex-president was implicated in a number of scandals, some of which emerged only after his death.

Mr Chirac has done nothing to improve the image, and arguably has dragged it down still further.

A recent editorial in Le Monde newspaper said the "disillusionment, not to mention disgust" at the scandals were largely to blame for public disinterest in the current election.

It is certainly going to prove difficult for Mr Chirac to ever emerge from the cloud of accusation.

'Supermenteur'

The French equivalent of the Spitting Image puppet show, Les Guignols, has cast the president as a Superman-style figure, dressed in the right outfit, but known as "Supermenteur" (Superliar).

It has caught on so well that children reportedly chant the name during presidential visits.

Mr Jospin is accused of nothing on the same scale - the skeleton in his own closet related to his secret life as a Trotskyist.

But no-one I speak to makes any distinction between them in terms of their honesty.

"Ce sont tous des magouilleurs," one man says - they're all dodgy.

The voters' remarkable tolerance of murky dealings may, of course, relate in part to their own skill in making the most of situations.

"Don't talk about corruption in France or in Paris - everybody is corrupt, myself too," one Paris resident confessed with a chuckle to the BBC earlier this year.

Mr Chirac has been hardest hit with specific allegations.

Travelgate

"Travelgate" was the most dramatic, and the most easily understood by voters.

Mayor Chirac had used huge cash bundles to pay for travel for himself and his entourage - he insisted it was for reasons of security rather than money-laundering.

But nothing has stuck to the Teflon president.

Even when the main judge investigating some of the claims against him, Eric Halphen, resigned in disgust earlier this year, Mr Chirac appeared to suffer no electoral damage.

Neither did the return to France of a key corruption suspect, Didier Schuller, after years in Caribbean exile, make any difference.

As the campaign clock ticked towards zero came more claims - this time a leaked document revealing the Chiracs' lavish lifestyle while Mayor of Paris.

Expensive tastes

The couple had run up grocery bills of 9.3m francs ($1.2m) during their last eight years at the mairie.

That equates to 100 kilos (220 lb) of apples a day, gleeful journalists calculated - no doubt mindful of an earlier Les Guignols Chirac slogan about eating apples being the answer to everything.

The timing of the revelation, weeks before the election, and emerging from the now-socialist mairie, is unlikely to have been a coincidence.

But if Travelgate didn't bring down the president, it seems unlikely that Applegate will.

BBC News Online's Sheila Barter is travelling across France to gauge the mood ahead of the forthcoming presidential election - this is the fourth of her reports.

See also:

05 Apr 02 | Europe
Record slate for French election
08 Mar 02 | Country profiles
Country profile: France
10 Oct 01 | Europe
Q & A: Chirac's corruption battle
04 Sep 01 | Europe
Chirac corruption inquiry halted
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