Obituary: Jacques Medecin

JACQUES MEDECIN, the disgraced former mayor of Nice who has died in exile in Uruguay at the age of 70, was a lovable rogue. Lovable to some, at any rate. To others, he was a crook, an embezzler, a womaniser, a fantasist and a racist.

As mayor, or dictator, of Nice for 24 years, he counted among his mortal enemies Charles de Gaulle, Graham Greene and Francois Mitterrand. He counted among his friends Jean-Marie Le Pen, the President of the National Front, and several of the leading figures in the syndicates of organised crime and corrupt business which have tarnished the reputation, and the sky- line, of the Cote d'Azur in the last three decades.

He once said: "I've never met a Jew who would refuse a present, even if it was one he didn't like." Much the same could have been said of Medecin himself. In 1982, in a celebrated pamphlet (never published in France) entitled J'Accuse, Graham Greene, a resident of nearby Antibes, excoriated the deepening corruption of the Cote d'Azur and the political-business- criminal network surrounding Medecin in particular.

Even though he skipped to South America in 1990 to avoid charges of tax evasion and pillaging the city's finances - charges for which he was extradited in 1994 and served one year in prison in France - "Jacquou" remained until his death a hugely popular figure in his home town.

The people of Nice - or a majority of the people of Nice - forgave him everything. With a series of costly leisure and sporting projects, he made the city cosmopolitan, trendy and expansive again after it slid into genteel torpor under the mayorship of his father, Jean, during the 1950s and 1960s. For the many thousands of former Algerian colonists who moved to Nice, Medecin was the man who insulted de Gaulle publicly and went out of his way to make them welcome.

He ran Nice along the lines of a newly industrialised nation or an old- style American city hall: machine politics, cronyism, patronage and a non-stop political campaign. His father once memorably said that it was impossible to run Nice without finding a role for the city's gangsters but you should "never give them a lift in your car". Medecin fils ignored this metaphorical advice, making provocatively public alliances with local hoodlums.

By siphoning off a part of the city's income with a series of front organisations, he made himself a multi-millionaire but declined to pay taxes. He insisted that his total earnings were pounds 10,000 a year. After marrying a young Californian, Ilene Graham, in 1979, Medecin spent more and more time in the United States. (He had not yet divorced his first wife but was saved from bigamy on a technicality; he had not registered his new marriage in Las Vegas with the French consulate.)

Medecin had always been attracted to the far right. He was an indefatigable defender of apartheid. In his later years as mayor, he became increasingly attracted to the xenophobic, anti-immigrant National Front, declaring Le Pen to be "99 per cent correct".

Finally, as the government investigators closed in, and his unexplained absences from Nice grew longer, Medecin chose to flee. His departure was as grandiose and bizarre as his mayorship. He went to Osaka to celebrate the eighth anniversary of the city's twinning with Nice. Instead of returning, he flew to Argentina, then Uruguay, claiming that he was the victim of a plot by the wicked Socialists now running France (some of whom turned out to be almost as corrupt as Medecin).

"I have always been a warrior and I will fight on to the last drop of my blood," he said. "But today, faced by the crushing weight of the totalitarian, Socialist power machine in France, I have been forced to make a tactical retreat."

His principled stand was somewhat undercut when a policeman found a suitcase containing the equivalent of pounds 70,000 in cash at Charles de Gaulle airport, addressed to the runaway mayor in Uruguay.

Medecin's legend in Nice remains intact. His death in exile has become an issue in the parliamentary by-election in the city, which occurs this weekend - a macabre piece of timing that Medecin would have adored.

The centre-right candidate Jacqueline Mathieu-Obadia described him as a "very great mayor . . . loved, very loved . . . an extraordinary man".

Mathieu-Obadia is a member of the RPR or neo-Gaullist party. Medecin detested de Gaulle and fought against Gaullism, and its descendants, most of his life. Such a fulsome Gaullist tribute to an anti-Gaullist reveals the continuing power of "Medecinisme" eight years after he fled the city. It also illustrates the vacant ideology and the muddled political genealogy of the French centre right, after a series of political failures and scandals of which Medecin's was one of the first but not necessarily the worst.

Jacques Medecin, local politician: born Nice, France 5 May 1928; Mayor of Nice 1966-90; thrice married (three daughters); died Punta del Este, Uruguay 17 November 1998.

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