The Prince who would be President

Buses for the handicapped, hostels for Aids sufferers ... there is no end to his promises The glory belongs to Paris, and Jacques Chirac is the prince of the city
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Indy Lifestyle Online
What we have done for Paris, we'll do for France, says Jacques Chirac. Despite the city's social problems, the Mayor has skilfully played on its reputation to add allure to his presidential candidacy, says Jonathan Fenby

Like Richard Daley in Chicago or Willy Brandt in west Berlin, Jacques Chirac is the embodiment of his city. Next month, if the voters follow defeated candidate Edouard Balladur's advice, he will be President of France.

Despite centuries of centralisation, Paris isn't France, but the way Mayor Chirac has run the capital for the past 18 years is a good pointer to the way President Chirac would run the country. As he himself promises, "What we've done for Paris, we will do tomorrow for France."

The Chirac system for running Paris is based on complete political control (the Mayor is a democrat, but he also expects to get his way without any argument), on efficient public services, on a gentrification of the city, and on a very French alliance of the right and the state.

Paris is a city that looks after itself. It spends 20 per cent of its budget on keeping itself clean, and employs 4,200 gardeners to tend only 6,425 acres of parks and gardens. The public buildings spawned by three presidents of the republic, in particular Franois Mitterrand, have given the city a new allure, from the glass pyramid in the courtyard of the Louvre to the Science Park at La Villette and the stunning new National History Museum by the Austerlitz station. The Mayor of Paris works in the biggest office in the whole country, in an ornate building with 1,290 windows and 142 Baccarat crystal chandeliers.

To take a less sunny view, this is also a city that has lost 180,000 manufacturing and commercial jobs in the past four years, is increasingly dependent on the transitory service sector, is in the iron grip of one political party, has undergone forced population shifts which have changed its character, and has big homelessness, drugs and Aids problems - not to mention the 11 per cent unemployment rate.

Chirac was not meant to become mayor. Since anti-royal riots in the city in 1358, the conventional wisdom of France's rulers was that it would be too dangerous to let anybody govern the capital independently of the national government. So, until 1977, Paris was ruled by a prfet appointed by the central authority.

Then President Giscard d'Estaing decided that the city should have an elected mayor - a job he intended for one of his supporters. Chirac, who had angrily resigned as prime minister the previous year and promptly founded the neo-Gaullist RPR party to back his first presidential bid in 1981, upset that calculation by trouncing the president's man. The epitome of energy, the new mayor raced up the steps of the Hotel de Ville four at a time.

Chirac flopped in third place in his presidential race. But in 1983, another of his political opponents opened the way for him to increase his control of the city. The socialist prime minister Pierre Mauroy introduced a system of directly-elected mayors for the districts of three major cities - Paris, Lyons and Marseilles. The so-called PLM law was meant to enable socialists to win more power in city governments. In Paris, Chirac's followers routed the left, and they have not relaxed their hold since.

All 20 arrondissements of the capital are run by the Mayor's men and women. On the city council, Chirac supporters occupy all but 22 of the 163 seats. Municipal elections will be held this summer. The squabbling parties of the left are trying to present a united front, but Paris will remain a one-party city, and the only uncertainty is who will succeed Chirac if he moves across the Seine to the Elyse Palace in May.

As his presidential campaign this spring has made clear, Chirac wants to appeal to the country as a man who, while running the most powerful political machine at the RPR, can transcend party boundaries, appealing to left as well as right. It is a technique he has honed to perfection in Paris.

Previously left-wing areas have fallen happily into his populist arms - this spring he has been promising to house the homeless and clean up sink housing estates on the heights of Belleville in the north of the city. Thirty-six per cent of city spending goes on social services and education, 16 per cent on the environment, and Chirac has cleverly avoided responsibility for the police - the Prfeture de Police is the responsibility of the Interior Ministry, which allows him to avoid many of the controversies that come with maintaining law and order.

Buses for the handicapped, hostels for Aids sufferers, anti-drug campaigns, help for the aged ... there is no end to the Mayor's promises for the city - or candidate Chirac's pledges for the country. His main aide in Paris, Jean Tiberi, has been sending out a flood of personally signed letters to parents pledging to redecorate their children's schools.

The city works, but some have paid the price. Although parts of Paris retain their old character, more and more streets have turned from traditional working-class areas into middle-class developments. "Simple people have been made to leave, the very character of parts of Paris has been destroyed," says one leader of the city's left, Georges Sarre.

Going back to an area of the city where I lived in the mid-1980s, in the 7th arrondissement, one notices how many small local shops have gone, replaced by estate agents, antiques showrooms and franchised up-market stores - or swallowed up in developments of up-market flats. There used to be no fewer than three butchers on a couple of hundredyards of rue de Verneuil: now there is only one. The ironmonger's shop on the rue du Bac has become an antiques shop; the Burgundy country restaurant opposite is boarded up, awaiting redevelopment. Up in the 19th arrondissement, by the Buttes Chaumont park, old two-storey houses have been remorselessly torn down to make way for middle-class flats and, at the top of the hill, huge tower-block council housing.

People talk about property values as they never did a decade or so ago, particularly when the market dips, as it has done recently. The decline in small businesses has hit the city's tax revenue and there is concern at the number of companies moving out of Paris proper to the neighbouring Hauts de Seine department - the fief of Chirac's one-time ally and now opponent, the Interior Minister, Charles Pasqua.

Many of the remaining picturesque areas that gave Paris its folklore and the backdrop for some of the most evocative films ever made - the Barbs area of the 18th, for example, and the streets behind the Porte St Denis - have become immigrant ghettos.

Chirac has done his bit to preserve and improve, but his presiding over money-chasing development recently led France's version of Spitting Image, Les Guignols de l'Info, to show what it thought a Chirac France would be like: a panorama of office buildings and motorways. Paris is, indeed, overstocked with new commercial property built with the encouragement of the city authorities. It has ugly urban motorways, but most were built under central government rule, not by the Mayor.

It is in building on the city's reputation as a centre of culture that Chirac has shown his political skills to the full. In doing so, he has made the most of the deep symbiosis between city and nation.

Last year, 21.6 per cent of the city's revenue came in grants from the national government. Dordogne farmers help to keep Paris public transport prices low by the subsidies paid with their taxes: they do not complain because, wherever they live, the French regard Paris as a city that represents the nation. Another 7.9 per cent came from the surrounding region, which does not complain because of the boost it gets from the capital.

Thus nearly a third of the Paris budget is covered by outside sources, mainly from the central government. Chirac has shown himself to be a politician of the right who knows how to work with the state, even when it is in the hands of the left. The centre of Paris is testament to that.

When President Mitterrand unveiled his plans for the Louvre, including the pyramid built by IM Pei, Chirac was urged by his RPR buddies to denounce it as a sacrilege. The Mayor kept quiet. Now the Louvre is a shining marvel, opening on to the restored Tuileries gardens and the spruced-up Place de la Concorde, and then up one of the world's great perspectives of the Champs-Elyses to the Arc de Triomphe. The glory belongs to Paris and Jacques Chirac is the prince of the city. But, of the whole journey from the Louvre to the Arc, only the Champs-Elyses is his concern - the rest are national monuments paid for by the national exchequer. The government pays; Chirac smiles and takes the credit for his city and himself.

Although he was born in Paris, the Chirac family comes from the Corrze department in central France, as does his wife. Like many Parisians, he keeps in touch with his country roots at weekends and during holidays. This combination of down-home country man and big city manager is very important in his appeal. He is happy striding through the farmyard mud in the Corrze, but makes the most of the status of the Mayor of Paris (officially recognised as being equivalent to a minister) to greet foreign dignitaries at the City Hall on their way to or from the Elyse.

This leads to the belief that he can combine the two sides of French life: the striving to be one of the world's most advanced nations with a great metropolis as its capital, while retaining all that is precious about the rural way of life. His critics, however, say he is a deeply unscrupulous manipulator who has swung from one extreme to another - from preaching French "labourism" to Thatcherism la franaise, to his current all-embracing "Republican Pact" - who repeats the last thing he has been told as if it is a new policy, and who would do anything to win the presidency at his third attempt.

But he has developed a unique combination of right-wing populism and big government, high-flying policy acrobatics and attention to electorally important detail, approachability and status. It has served him well in Paris for 18 years. And it will mark his approach to governing the whole nation if he finally attains his lifetime dream on 7 May.