Robot man or just a doting dad? Will the real Alain Juppe stand up?

The most hated man in France? The most unpopular prime minister since Edith Cresson? A lean and hungry politician of such cold efficiency as to merit the nickname "the walking computer"?

Not a bit of it. Alain Juppe, who has headed the French government for the past 18 months, is a sensitive soul who can sit happily for hours on the nursery floor with his baby daughter Clara in his arms, in the company of a large furry elephant and a menagerie of soft toys.

He is "a husband passionately in love" (with his wife); who enjoys nothing better than eating, drinking and travel and regrets only that he has so little time for reading and perhaps a little writing. He dreams of 1998, when, with the Gaullists victorious in the parliamentary elections, he can holiday in Ireland for a spot of fishing or, on reflection, in the Greek islands that have been his paradise since his youth.

This is Alain Juppe - the Relaunch, as brought to disgruntled voters this Christmas courtesy of the magazine Paris-Match, the publisher, Nil, and of course Mr Juppe, who, it appears, has finally understood that he has a communication problem.

From remote, compulsive technocrat, he has turned himself into a shy but blissfully happy family man whose single purpose as prime minister is to improve life for the French, and especially the next generation.

The seven-page Paris-Match feature, which appeared yesterday, shows Mr Juppe in many unaccustomed guises. As well as in the nursery, photographs depict him en famille beside the Christmas tree, in his office with Clara (one hand in his daughter's, one on his papers and pens), and depositing a kiss on his wife's hand during the soup course at a Bordeaux restaurant.

In the accompanying interview, he (and Paris-Match) go out of their way to present him as the opposite of his public image.

Heartless technocrat from the elite? "I was very unhappy at ENA [the elite school for administrators] ... I came from a very modest background." A computer brain?

He had a teacher who kept telling him how intelligent he was but he veered towards the arts and classics, not to maths and science, and was no good at philosophy.

Arrogant and thoughtless? Well, maybe, but only by mistake. He admits that describing the giant state firm Thomson as worth "only one franc" and the civil service as having "plenty of fat on it" were damaging public- relations gaffes.

But, in a passage of vintage Juppe, he also asks whether "communication skills" would solve everything.

"When you have to do something unpleasant and difficult, you can apply as many communications skills as you want, but people will still find it difficult to accept. It's far harder to accept a rise in VAT than a fall, however well you communicate it." The previous day, the Nil publishing house, a reliable establishment recommended, Mr Juppe says, by his friend, President Jacques Chirac, released his slim volume of intimate self-justification, Between Ourselves. It is in a similar vein to the Paris-Match interview, but with considerably more politics.

The dedication, for instance, is not, as might have been expected from the Paris-Match performance, to his wife and daughter, nor yet to the next generation of France, but to "each of his ministers" for the "quality and strength of their commitment at my side". The message is: "Anyone who says the team is weak and divided and I'm not a team player could not be further from the truth."

Paradoxically, Juppe Mark II appears just as the French seemed to have grudgingly reconciled themselves to Juppe Mark I. Mr Chirac has twice recently given his prime minister his support, the worst of the year's industrial unrest seems to be over, and Mr Juppe's poll ratings had finally edged up a fraction.

Comments