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Last Updated:  Friday, 21 February, 2003, 18:41 GMT
Chirac: Jacques the Lad
By Chris Jones
BBC News profiles unit

Jacques Chirac
In a career beset with allegations of scandal, Jacques Chirac is weathering another storm of criticism over his stand on Iraq and Zimbabwe. Is he more than just a cynical politician playing to the gallery?

The French always oppose America, don't they? It often seems like that, but the fifth president of the Fifth Republic retains a deep affection for the United States.

As a young man in post-war Paris, Jacque Chirac dreamed of visiting the US and in 1953, he spent a summer at Harvard University.

At weekends, he worked as a "soda jerk" at a Howard Johnson's restaurant, where he met and fell in love with 18-year-old Florence Herlihy from South Carolina. He has recalled how she called him "honey child", while Florence, tracked down by a French magazine, remembers him as a wonderful kisser.

Chirac's wife, Bernadette
Bernadette Chirac: Not his first love
But after his return to France, Chirac married Bernadette Chodron de Courcel, a minor aristocrat.

After national service as a cavalry officer, he graduated from an elite civil service training school and began his political career in 1967.

Chirac, who as a student had sold the Communist newspaper L'Humanite, was elected to the National Assembly as a member of the Gaullist Party and taken under the wing of Georges Pompidou. He was nicknamed "the Bulldozer" because of his driving ambition. After a succession of ministerial posts, he was made prime minister after Valery Giscard d'Estaing became president in 1974.

But Chirac soon resigned and founded his own party, the Rassemblement pour la Republique, whose main aim was to get him elected president.

Nineteen years and three campaigns later, his ambition was realised.

City hall funds

Allegations of impropriety have accompanied Chirac throughout his career, the most serious involving his 18 years as mayor of Paris.

Magistrates have spent several years investigating accusations that city hall creamed tens of millions of pounds off public housing contracts, most of it going to Chirac's party, through the creation of fictitious jobs.

Jacques Chirac, arms aloft
Spared a court appearance - for now
This is not as remarkable as it might seem. Party financing laws were until recently poorly defined, and it was common knowledge that the Socialists and Communists engaged in similar activities.

Other accusations were more unusual. Municipal auditors suggested that the Chirac family spent 400 of public money a day on groceries, and magistrates were also interested in the large cash sums Chirac paid for luxury holidays for himself, his family and friends.

Chirac has strenuously denied any wrongdoing and successfully claimed presidential immunity to avoid going to court. Nonetheless, a judge has determined that he should appear in 2007, although there is no guarantee that the president will not then seek a third term.

'Understanding' wife

Then there's Jacques Chirac's secret love life.

They came down the stairs with their eyes twinkling and their tights twisted like corkscrews
Chirac's former chauffeur Jean-Claude Laumond
In a book published after he was sacked, the president's former chauffeur, Jean-Claude Laumond, says female staff at party headquarters dubbed Chirac "the three-minute man" because of his speedy sexual liaisons.

Laumond says: "They came down the stairs with their eyes twinkling and their tights twisted like corkscrews."

Speaking volumes between the lines of her own book, the president's wife Bernadette has remarked: "He has been lucky that I have been a very reasonable woman. But I have been jealous, sometimes. Very jealous. He is a handsome man, very charming, and women love that."

But there has been no feeding frenzy by the French media, reluctant to break their tradition of non-intrusion into private lives.

"Perhaps there is also an excess of reverence for their leaders," says Jean-Pierre Langellier of the heavyweight newspaper, Le Monde.

Winds of change

Chirac's career has also been awash with political inconsistency - another of his nicknames is La Girouette, the weathervane.

The Thatcherite, privatising, Eurosceptic prime minister became the presidential candidate who campaigned against "social fracture" and, once elected, watched unemployment climb and became a champion of the single currency.

Chirac raises a finger to emphasise a point to Tony Blair
Chirac makes a point
Langellier believes that Chirac's views on Iraq and his efforts to resolve conflict in Africa are partly motivated by national interest. "They are also rooted in a sincere desire to avoid hostilities. Jacques Chirac is a very complex man."

His close relationship with his younger daughter, Claude, is said to stem from their shared grief over her sister, Laurence, who suffers from a severe form of anorexia, and is never seen in public.

It is Claude's work as her father's communications advisor that has portrayed him as a man of the people, who prefers Mexican beer to red wine and loves sumo wrestling.

"He hates being called an intellectual," says Langellier, although his conversations with Chirac have confirmed that the president is just that, with his love of African art and Chinese poetry.

Despite his abundance of Gallic charm, the avalanche of allegations that pursue the president would surely have buried another leader in another country.

But 40 years after he started climbing the greasy pole, there's still no hint of Jacques Chirac losing his grip.

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