Chirac emerges as unlikely hero from big screen satire

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Jacques Chirac has been many things to many people, but he has never been a movie star before.

The mystery of the President's political longevity - and his strange hold on the French people - is explored in a knockabout, satirical documentary which has just opened in French cinemas.

Dans la Peau de Jacques Chirac (Inside the Skin of Jacques Chirac) is attracting large audiences to cinemas in Paris. Some of them are Chirac-haters who have come to laugh at the President; many more are Chirac-lovers who have come to relive the highlights of the 38-year career of one of the most irresistible, and irresponsible, politicians of recent times.

When Tony Blair meets President Chirac at the Elysée Palace this morning for their final Anglo-French summit, Mr Blair will have one last chance to enjoy his counterpart's charisma. Even at the height of Anglo-French battles over Iraq, or the EU budget, or beef, officials say, Mr Blair was always "entertained by the Chirac show".

Much the same is true of the film. Although intended, largely, as a mocking retrospective on M. Chirac's career, the movie is transformed into something more ambiguous - even moving - by the President's charm and cheek. M. Chirac is set up as the victim and the villain. He becomes the hero.

The 90-minute film, directed by Karl Zéro and Michel Royer, is a hilarious riffling of the television archives to present the 38 years of U-turns, lies and back-stabbings which have distinguished the President's career.

There is a fictional voice-over by a convincing Chirac soundalike (Didier Gustin) boasting of an empty-headed, cynical determination to succeed in the "craft" of politics, for its own sake. "I never thought much of myself," the fictional, presidential voiceover confides. "And all the others thought I was a fool. But I screwed them one by one."

You see the Eurosceptic M. Chirac of 1981 saying that the enlargement of the European Community to include Spain and Portugal would be a catastrophe which would lay waste to French agriculture and turn the European dream into a nightmare. Then you see the pro-European President Chirac of 2005 mocking all those who "claimed that Iberian enlargement would be a catastrophe".

You see the Chirac who movingly condemned racism in 1995. You see the Chirac who said, in 1988, that he could "understand" racism because large, unruly immigrant families produced noise and "odours" on council flat landings.

You see the sinister - but handsome - early Chirac saying that police should get off the backs of motorists and not enforce speed and drink-driving laws. You see the avuncularChirac of 2002 announcing a national crusade to reduce road deaths by enforcing traffic laws properly for the first time.

The film explores the President's alleged illegal raising of political funds and his allegedly energetic womanising. At one point the Chirac voice says: "I have always loved journalists - especially blondes." Rapidly, the movie becomes a battle between this fictionalised - or semi-fictionalised - Chirac and the real, equally roguish, but finally lovable, Chirac seen in the old clips. The real Chirac wins.

In trendier parts of Paris, some showings have been attended by the directors, who run a news show on the cable and satellite television channel Canal Plus. During question times afterwards, young, leftish members of the audience have complained they had expected a cinematic assassination, such as Michael Moore's documentary on George Bush,Fahrenheit 9/11. Instead, they said, they came away from the film "liking Chirac for the first time".

Zéro said the film tried to show the "human" side of M. Chirac and tried to explain why he has been so successful as a candidate but so disastrous as a president. "It is the story of this bloke who wants vaguely to succeed, confronted with a romantic destiny, and an absurd run of luck, which transforms each error into a triumph," he said.

The attempt to pyscho-analyse the President is drawn from a novel that was published three years ago by Eric Zemmour, a right-wing political journalist. The Chirac figure inL'Autre ("the other bloke") spends his life trying to prove to himself, and his dead father, that he is not a worthless twit.

The right-wingZemmour is co-author of the film's commentary with the left-wing Zéro. In the movie, as in life, left and right wingers try to "screw" M. Chirac but ended up being screwed by him. As a retrospective on Chirac's life, the film becomes more subtle than they intended.