Mystery of President's holiday grips French press

President Jacques Chirac, a man known for his love of the exotic, spent his summer holiday in a small, rainy village in Quebec. Or did he? According to speculation in the French media, the President may have secretly absented himself from the picturesque village of North Hatley (population 773) for up to four days, for reasons which remain unclear.

The satirical television puppet show Les Guignols de l'Info suggests that the President sneaked away to have a face-lift, something for which Canada is noted. Other versions of the rumour, which was deliberately fanned yesterday by the far-right politician Jean-Marie Le Pen, suggest that M. Chirac had more serious medical surgery and was out of action for several days.

The Elysée Palace has dismissed the speculation. It insists that M. Chirac and his wife, Bernadette, spent the period from 2 to 19 August at the Auberge Hatley, a £130-a-night hotel near Sherbrooke, 80 miles east of Montreal. But questions continue to be asked about M. Chirac's holidays, a subject which has led to controversy in the past.

The respected newspaper Le Monde ran an article on its front page yesterday headlined "The Mystery of North Hatley". The article said there were clear sightings of the presidential couple in the first week of their holidays, notably an unpleasant incident in which the Chiracs' poodle, Sumo, was attacked in the village by strays. Le Monde, quoting local journalists and officials, said there was much less evidence of M. and Mme Chirac's presence in the second week of their holiday.

The village mayor, Stephan Doré, has even spoken this week of the Chiracs "arriving on the 2nd of August and leaving on the 15th", four days earlier than officially announced.

Could this explain another mystery? Why did President Chirac - a man who is known for his ability to impose himself on events - fail to make any comment on the deaths of more than 12,000 elderly people in the heatwave that struck France in early August?

The political controversy over the failure of the French government to respond more quickly to the deaths was at its most intense during the period when M. Chirac is said to have gone missing. The President made no comment on the disaster until he returned to Paris.

Rumours circulating among the political classes in Paris include suggestions that M. Chirac had chosen to go on holiday in Quebec so that he could, in secrecy, have a face-lift or an operation on his vocal chords or thyroid glands. Les Guignols de L'Info ran a sequence in which a puppet of M. Chirac was shown pinning his cheeks behind his ears.

Mr Le Pen, the leader of the xenophobic National Front and a long-term enemy of M. Chirac, hinted strongly in a press interview yesterday that he thought the President was hiding a serious medical condition.

"I think he was not capable, physically or mentally, of speaking out for several days," M. Le Pen told Le Parisien.

He suggested that the next presidential election, which is not due before 2007, might be held as soon as next year.

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