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Saturday, 14 July, 2001, 10:49 GMT 11:49 UK
Chirac family drawn into probe
Jaques Chirac
The president is under scrutiny
By James Coomarasamy in Paris

The scent of sleaze is hardly alien to the corridors of the Elysee Palace.

Over the past few months, it has been snaking its way closer to President Chirac's door - slowly but surely, like one of those moving shapes used to represent smells in cartoons.

As alleged corruption scandals have multiplied, so too have the number of magistrates boldly galloping off in the hope of persuading the president to tell his side of the story.

It's not just the president the investigators are aiming for - or even just the president's men. It's the president's women

But while each has departed, brandishing a sword of accusation, each has returned with his weapon blunted - snapped in two in fact - by a president who simply insists that the French constitution forbids him from giving evidence.

But this time - with the cash for air tickets row - it is different. This time it is personal.

Close to home

It is not just the president the investigators are aiming for - or even just the president's men. It's the president's women - more specifically the two women closest to him in his life, and - according to many - in his politics.

His daughter Claude has already been quizzed about some of the private trips her father made in the 1990s, which were paid for in cash. Chirac officials say the money came from secret government funds, which he'd had access to when he was prime minister.

Some of his opponents argue that at least some of it was plucked from a slush fund that was allegedly in place when he was mayor of Paris.

Chirac's daughter Claude
The finger is now being pointed at Chirac's daughter Claude
The allegations provide more work for 38-year-old Claude, who is what you might call the president's spin daughter - an official confidante and communications adviser and an extremely good one at that.

For Jacques Chirac is an exceptional communicator, in a raw, hand-pumping, baby-kissing way. He sometimes shakes so many hands that he starts coming back for second helpings.

He is like an uninhibited member of a royal family, and is frequently treated that way, in this proudly republican country.

On many of his outings, Claude hovers behind him, clutching her mobile phone to her ear, as if she is directing her father's movements with a remote control.

So far, she has been able to stave off any political damage the increasingly confident magistrates might have done, but now she has been questioned herself, that might become more difficult.

Chirac's mood is combative - partly because his daughter has become involved, but mainly because his wife Bernadette might be

However, if the investigators are sharpening their swords with more confidence and relish than usual, they are likely to face a president with more of a will to fight back.

And he is prepared to use weapons of his own to complement his trusty shield of immunity.

On the offensive

For now Mr Chirac's mood is combative - partly because his daughter has become involved, but mainly because his wife Bernadette might be.

Many people assume she is about to be questioned about trips she made with her husband, that were paid for with taxpayers money.

Bernadette is something of an unsung heroine outside her country - while inside it she is a model and popular first lady.

She has the Barbara Bush matronly reassurance, sprinkled with French chic - something she's combined with Hilary Clinton's ability to win elected office - albeit as a regional councillor in rural Correze, rather than a senator from New York.

But if you add to that her charitable work - especially her high-profile yellow coins foundation to help disabled children - you can she why she is such an asset to the president, and why her association with the sleaze allegations could potentially be a serious political blow.

Bernadette Chirac
Bernadette Chirac - 'half Barbara Bush and half Hilary Clinton'
Indeed, in recent months, Bernadette Chirac has become more and more of a mouthpiece for her husband - popping up all over the place to do work that you might have logically thought was his - from giving her support to flood victims in the Somme to backing right-wing candidates in the local elections.

And it was Bernadette who appeared on television to give the strongest public hint of one of France's worst-kept secrets - that the president would indeed be standing for re-election next year.

But are his chances of winning that vote being damaged by the latest scandal becoming a family affair? Or, paradoxically, might Bernadette's possible questioning actually play into his hands?

Certainly, senior Gaullists believe that by dragging the family into the scandal, investigators will increase the sympathy vote.

It is not clear how this fast-developing scandal will pan out, but what should become clear is how the French see their first family.

Are they viewed as ordinary mortals or - as the president's supporters hope - are they the nearest thing the country has to royalty, who should remain - to a certain extent, at least - above the law?

See also:

11 Jul 01 | Europe
Clouds gather around Chirac
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