By Pamela SampsonAssociated Press
May 4, 2002
Dapper and tall with charm to spare, French President Jacques Chirac is a well-bred bon vivant who enjoys such trappings of power as luxury voyages abroad or life in a government-owned palace.
One of the most dominant players on the French political scene since the late President Francois Mitterrand, Chirac's term has been stained by allegations of corruption. During his presidential campaign against ultra-rightist Jean-Marie Le Pen, voters took to hoisting banners that read: "Vote for the Crook, not the Fascist."
Overseas, he's seen as a consummate diplomat. The first head of state to meet with President Bush after the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks, Chirac won widespread praise for the sympathy he showed after flying over the ruins of the World Trade Center. "When you see that, you really want to cry," he said.
But at home, Chirac has been implicated in various scandals. For now, he is out of reach of prosecutors because of presidential immunity. By winning a second term, Chirac would remain untouchable for at least five more years.
Investigators believe Chirac used hundreds of thousands of public dollars to pay for personal vacations for himself, his family and his entourage while he was Paris mayor in the 1990s. In an explanation that raised more questions, Chirac said the money came from a special fund he was entitled to use as prime minister between 1986 and 1988.
Investigators are also looking into allegations that Paris City Hall under then-Mayor Chirac received millions of dollars in kickbacks in the 1980s and early 1990s, then funneled the money into political parties like Chirac's Rally for the Republic.
Critics draw a portrait of a man with a credibility problem who channels his energy to serve his ambition.
"He says he wishes the law were different so he could testify before a court," Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former Socialist finance minister, said on national television. "But nothing forbids the president of the Republic from going to testify."
Heir to the conservative mantle of World War II hero Charles de Gaulle, Chirac, now 69, has been a key figure of the French right since the mid-1970s, steadily advancing up the electoral ladder.
His success with voters has been attributed to his gift for reaching out and touching ordinary people: No politician rushes to the scene of a disaster faster than Chirac, looks more enraptured when a farmer shows off his cow or appears more thrilled to kiss a baby.
Chirac, friends say, "is never better than when he is on the campaign trail."
The only child of a well-to-do businessman, Chirac apparently had a lively youth. He was expelled from school for shooting paper wads at a teacher. He also sold the Communist daily "L'Humanite" on the streets for a brief time, and even worked as a soda jerk at a Howard Johnson's restaurant in the United States, where he reportedly earned a certificate of merit for his outstanding banana splits.
But Chirac got more serious after serving in the Algerian war, and enrolled at France's Ecole Nationale d'Administration, the elite training ground for the French political class. He was named prime minister at 41.
A personality clash with President Valery Giscard d'Estaing led Chirac to resign, but he quickly plotted his comeback. He was elected mayor of Paris in 1977 and used the highly visible office as a power base to regroup.
In the 1981 and 1988 presidential elections, Chirac lost to Mitterrand, a Socialist, but his third try for France's top political prize proved the charm, and Chirac became president in 1995.
In a stunning political miscalculation in April 1997, Chirac dissolved his conservative government and called elections, hoping a more manageable parliament would be elected while his support was still strong. The gamble backfired, and the left swept into power, leaving Chirac largely a lame duck, unable to move his political agenda forward.
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