John Lichfield: Chirac hasn’t lost the flirting plot

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Congratulations to Sophie Dessus, the star of the funniest French film of the year. The film only lasts a few seconds. Her co-stars are a comedy double act worthy of Laurel and Hardy: Jacques and Bernadette Chirac.

Ms Dessus is not an actress. She is a local politician in Corrèze, in south-west France.

The short clip, which is attracting tens of thousands of hits on YouTube, shows the former president, aged 78, flirting with Ms Dessus, 55, behind the back, literally, of his fierce but funny wife, Bernadette.

The footage was taken last weekend when Bernadette Chirac was making a speech, as a local councillor, to launch an exhibition of Chinese art at the Jacques Chirac presidential museum in Corrèze. Rather than listen to his wife, the allegedly senile ex-president fusses to make sure that Ms Dessus, a tall, slender Socialist with long, blonde hair, sits next to him. Bernadette looks angrily around.

Then she gives a long-suffering and knowing look into the TV camera which Oliver Hardy could not have bettered. Jacques Chirac continues to whisper and giggle with Ms Dessus. Bernadette spins around and says “shush”. Then she returns to her speech with what may be a faint grin.

The ex-president pulls a face like a 10-year old boy told off by teacher. After a pause, he turns to Ms Dessus and gives her an appalling half-smile, half-leer.

In a few seconds, you can learn many things. You can see in action the legendary charm, and humanity, of one of the most roguish politicians of our age. You can evaluate and discount, but perhaps not completely, the stories that Mr Chirac has lost the plot since losing power.

You also witness the flirtiness between male and female politicians – and between French men and women generally – which is refreshing but can also lead to abuses and misunderstandings. Some male French politicians, and some French men, feel they have a de officio right to “draguer” (chat up) women.

French women have mostly learnt how to cope and how to place barriers between what is playful and what is serious.

However, the Dominique Strauss-Kahn saga suggests that the chatting-up game can breed, in some men, a dangerous sense of arrogant entitlement.

Mr Chirac’s playfulness on this occasion went beyond flirting in the presence of his wife. He also engaged in a form of political flirtation. The owlish man seen sitting beside him in the brief TV film is François Hollande, the former leader of the Parti Socialiste, who is the president of the Corrèze departement (county) council. Since “DSK” crashed and burned, Mr Hollande has emerged as the front-runner to win the Socialist nomination in October and defeat President Nicolas Sarkozy in the presidential election next April and May.

A few minutes before this footage was filmed, ex-president Chirac announced on another open mike that he would “vote” for Mr Hollande next year, not for his estranged ex-protégé, Mr Sarkozy. “Look out, they’ll hear you.” Mr Hollande whispered. Mr Chirac pulled a face and said: “I can say that I’m voting Hollande if I want.”

Cue fury in the Elysée Palace and headlines in the French press. The next day Mr Chirac put out a statement – or a statement was put out on his behalf – saying that his comments were a “joke” and an example of “Corrèzian humour”.

Bernadette Chirac rang Mr Sarkozy personally to apologise and say that her husband was becoming “defiltré”, which means, loosely, a “garrulous old fool”.

Watch the Sophie Dessus film for yourselves and judge whether or not Jacques Chirac knew precisely what he was doing and saying last weekend.

Margaret’s crystal ball may have some answers

Two years ago I was having a drink with my wife and a Very Senior Official. We started talking about politics and who might emerge as the Socialist challenger to President Sarkozy in 2011-2.

The Very Senior Official said the challenger would, once again, be Ségolène Royal. Ho, ho, I said, not a chance. She’s flakier than ever. The only possible winner of the Socialist primary is Dominique Strauss-Kahn.

My wife, Margaret, who is not paid to follow these things, said that we were both wrong. She offered the name of a rank outsider who was then paddling in the shallow end of the polls. Ho, ho, ho, the VSO and I said. Too dull, too nice, too cerebral, no charisma.

The rank outsider was Francois Hollande. What Margaret saw then, and Jacques Chirac and many others see now, is that Hollande is the perfect anti-Sarko candidate: dull, yes, but also calm, thoughtful, eloquent, funny, modest and likeable. Hollande’s likeability has limits, however. He is detested by every other senior French Socialist. They are now plotting fiendish ways to turn Jacques Chirac’s “joking” endorsement against him.

The proper use of poppies

I was visiting the Somme battlefields during the week to prepare an article for the 95th anniversary next month. I visited, amongst other places, the large German war cemetery at Fricourt. German war cemeteries are extremely German: dark, dour and functional.

The only splash of colour was a wreath of plastic poppies left by a party of 12-year-old schoolchildren from Lancashire. I had spoken to them a few hours earlier. They were from Saint Mary’s College, Stonyhurst, which makes an annual pilgrimage to the Somme and Ypres. The wreath, brought in the bus from Lancashire with many others, carried a long message, in German. It said, in effect, “yes, we remember, admire and pity you too”

Now that is a proper use of poppies. Compare and contrast with the jingoistic rubbish we heard last November about the patriotic obligation on all British TV presenters to wear poppies.

j.lichfield@independent.co.uk

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