First lady revealed

29th July 2003, Comments 0 comments

With a rare television interview following the publication of a book of often revealing conversations, French first lady Bernadette Chirac has taken a step out of the shadows - and on to her husband's campaign trail. Hugh Schofield reports.

The 68-year-old wife of President Jacques Chirac has played a discreet role during his six years in office, preferring the privacy of behind-the-scenes domesticity to the exposed life of France's first lady.

But in the run-up to the presidential elections, in which her husband is expected to run for a second term, her sudden emergence from behind the drapes of the Elysee palace is an apparent sign that she is regarded as an important asset - particularly among right-wing voters.

In her book Conversation, written with a leading conservative magazine editor, Bernadette Chirac speaks about her Catholic faith and her opposition to abortion - but also with unusual frankness about the tests through which a family can be put by a husband's infidelity.

Describing Jacques as a "handsome man," who had "enormous success with women," she writes: "Nowadays at the first difficulty people just give up. But as far as I was concerned, I hesitated because I had children, and also because I was the prisoner of certain family traditions.

"Convention had it that in this sort of situation you put up a front and just kept going. In any case I warned him often enough: the day Napoleon left Josephine, he lost everything."

Stories of President Chirac's affairs have long been part of the Paris rumour-mill, but because of France's legal and traditional codes of privacy, they are rarely written about publicly.

Bernadette's scarcely-veiled admission that he had relations with other women - and her reference to how she knuckled under for the sake of their two daughters - will thus come as little surprise, but could stand both of them in good stead among many voters.

Bernadette was born into an aristocratic French family - the Chodron de Courcel - and married Chirac, who she described as being like a "bulldozer," 45 years ago. She is an elected councillor for their home department of Correze and patron of a number of charities.

In a TV interview - watched by more than five million people - screened shortly after the publication of her book, Bernadette Chirac also spoke of her admiration for Hillary Clinton "so brave in the difficult circumstances of her private life," and the former first lady herself appeared in a pre-recorded interview singing Bernadette's praises.

According to Le Monde newspaper, the decision to allow Madame Chirac to take a more prominent role came after much deliberation by the president's advisers - who have in the past argued that her old-fashioned image would do him more harm than good.

On one occasion they even prevented her from attending a lunch given by her husband for a group of young people because they thought it would look "too mummy and daddy-ish."

But the calculation appears to have been made that she could win over right-wing voters tempted by other candidates such as the veteran Gaullist Charles Pasqua. "There's no question, Bernadette has become an element in her husband's presidential campaign," Le Monde said.

In her book, Bernadette also speaks openly for the first time about her handicapped older daughter Laurence, and she dismisses reports of tensions with her younger daughter Claude - who is Chirac's media adviser and is credited with giving him a progressive image, at variance with her mother's.

October 2001

Copyright AFP

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