Has Chirac survived his darkest hour?

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

It was billed as one of President Jacques Chirac's most crucial interviews in his 40 years in politics. Would he succeed in dispelling the clouds of suspicion that have been building in the "cash-for-airfares" scandal?

We report on the build-up to this crucial 14 July interview – Chirac's first broadside in what promises to be a long stand-off with three determined examining magistrates. Hugh Schofield judges the results after the first skirmish.

In the end it was a consummate Chiracian performance: short on substance perhaps, key questions carefully side-stepped, but a cloak of plausibility deftly thrown over the affair, followed by quicksilver sabre-thrusts at those who would do him down.

Buoyed by the knowledge that in opinion polls most people said they wanted him to talk more about their daily concerns – such as crime and jobs – than about how he came to pay out huge sums in cash for private foreign holidays, Chirac did just that.

Of the 75 minutes of interview he gave on national television to mark Bastille day, roughly 30 were given over to the allegations of misdemeanour. The rest amounted to a thinly veiled attack on his Socialist rival, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

By bemoaning the growing levels of delinquency across France, he implicitly criticised Jospin's failure to bring them down. By drawing attention to the country's persistently high levels of taxation, he was accusing Jospin of failing to undertake vital economic reforms.

"We have had three or four years of very strong growth," the president said. "I am not sure they have been wisely used."

Chirac also developed a theme that he suspects will reap copious rewards in the presidential elections in April and May, posing as a champion of the environment and quoting Victor Hugo: "Nature is speaking to us, but we do not listen."

As for the allegations being levelled against him, the president reverted – as predicted – to the offensive, rounding on the judges who earlier in the week questioned his daughter Claude over the affair, and blaming the scandal on "rumour, suspicion and manipulation."

Critics, and the press, will no doubt point out that the key question – how did Chirac come to have hundreds of thousands of francs in cash between 1992 and 1995 with which to pay for private foreign travel – went unanswered.

Asked by news presenter Patrick Poivre D'Arvor to give assurances that the money did not come from backhanders paid to the RPR party during his time as mayor of Paris, Chirac said, "I have nothing to hide," but avoided responding directly.

Nor did he confirm his own office's earlier explanation for the cash – that it came from so-called "secret funds" put at the disposal of French prime ministers, and some of which one aide personally remembered bringing to the Paris city hall when Chirac left the prime ministership in 1988.

All he said about the source of the cash was that it came from his "personal income."

And he was also vague about how much of the FF 2.4 million (EUR 370,000) allegedly paid for the tickets he personally subscribed, disputing any connection with some of the payments but refusing to state precisely how many he was responsible for.

In a different country, a leading politician would have expected to be pinned down on such questions, but Chirac's supporters believe his tactic of talking around the scandal rather than addressing it head-on has probably paid off.

The president has survived many dangerous moments before, and every time his greatest strength is his air of utter conviction that he will be taken at his word.

July 2001

Copyright AFP

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