France's most popular politician is facing the prospect of legal humiliation by the end of the summer. His new-found place in public affections is unlikely to be damaged. His name is Jacques Chirac.
The retired former president has soared to stratospheric levels of popularity in recent months – well beyond any support that he enjoyed in his four decades in French politics. However, M. Chirac's doubtful past is also catching up with him.
One of two criminal investigations into M. Chirac's alleged embezzlement of public funds to finance his rise to the presidency has been completed, according to judicial sources. Defence lawyers have until early July to ask for further inquiries. Once that period expires, the investigating magistrate, Xavière Simeoni, is expected to recommend that M. Chirac, 76, should be sent for trial.
The case involves the allegedly illegal hiring of political allies and friends as "special staff" of the Paris town hall when M. Chirac was mayor of the capital. Judicial sources say that, under questioning, President Chirac has accepted that he, not his senior advisers, should bear the blame for any illegal hiring. Publicly, he continues to deny any wrong-doing.
In an article in Le Monde in November 2007, on the day that he was formally accused of "embezzling public funds", M. Chirac said: "Never were the funds of the city of Paris used to fulfil ambitions, other than those of Parisians. Never was there any personal enrichment."
On the second point, there is no dispute. He is accused, however, of systematically financing his national political career at the expense of the taxpayers of Paris.
During his dozen years as president, from 1995 to 2007, M. Chirac had immunity from prosecution. Since he left office, two parallel criminal investigations have been grinding slowly forward.
What has been much less predictable is the former president's rise to the top of the political popularity charts in the last three months. In the latest poll for Ifop/Paris-Match, M. Chirac had a 74 per cent "positive" rating, compared to 41 per cent for his former protégé, now estranged, Nicolas Sarkozy. At the nadir of his fortunes, during student protests in 2006, President Chirac's approval rating fell to 29 per cent.
Pollsters and political commentators say that the rediscovered affection for the avuncular, calm M. Chirac is driven mostly by the unpopularity of his nervy and hyperactive successor. The recession, and the often unpresidential behaviour of President Sarkozy, have created an unexpected nostalgia for the once-maligned Chirac era.
Left-wing voters, many of whom regarded the former president as a pariah, are now 66 per cent pro-Chirac. Frédéric Dabi of IFOP said: "The Chirac years are now seen as the time before the economic crisis ... a kind of golden age. He was such a different kind of president that he is reaping the benefit of anti-Sarkozy feeling, especially among the young and on the left."
The culture minister, Christine Albanel, pointed out that it was much easier for a politician to be popular when he no longer had to take decisions. "He was always a likeable man," she said. "Now he's become a kind of universal grandfather."
In retirement, M. Chirac is running his foundation, which champions the developing world and African and Asian art. Part of his time is spent, however, organising his legal defence in the two embezzlement investigations. An attempt to combine them into one mega-inquiry was rejected on appeal last month – a victory for M. Chirac.Reuse content