Sitting pretty beneath his apple tree

Mary Dejevsky profiles Jacques Chirac, way out in front for the French presidency
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His campaign logo is an apple tree: a neat green tree with bright red apples. It speaks to French townspeople of their rural idyll; it tells farmers that they are valued; and it is meant to symbolise the economic growth that Jacques Chirac has promised to bring to France in the increasingly likely event that, in seven weeks' time, he is elected the country's next president.

The choice of the apple tree was felicitous. Its designer, Yves Setton, has become a celebrity. Cartoonists and headline writers love it: Jacques Chirac, "sitting pretty beneath his apple tree", "tending his orchard", and "harvesting the fruit of his labours" are just a few of this week's offerings.

The legend that goes with the apple tree, "France for everyone" (La France pour tous), is equally well chosen. It not only sums up Mr Chirac's one- nation Gaullism, but is also the only campaign slogan to have people as its focus. And people, as the other candidates are coming painfully to realise, are what this campaign is about, far more than policies. It is Mr Chirac's efforts with people that are paying off, handsomely. Having seen off his only serious rival, Eduoard Balladur, Mr Chirac this week has virtually gained the status of president-elect - at least viewed from abroad. Hence the close attention paid to his major foreign affairs speech on Thursday.

He has been on the road since at least last October. Some say that his campaign began for real in 1993, when the right won a landslide victory in parliamentary elections and Mr Chirac turned down the post of prime minister. At that time, he chose to remain mayor of Paris - where he is popular and seems to run an efficient machine - but he also started to travel the country, working outwards from his beloved region of Corrze in the Limousin.

Corrze is a backward, predominantly rural dpartment, where the Chiracs have had a house - to be accurate, two houses, each more like a chteau - for the best part of 20 years. When a television interviewer pointed out this week that Mr Chirac was now 11 points ahead in the opinion polls, he quipped back: "You mean the Corrze polls?"

He is genuinely loved there; and the more he travels, the more widely his popular touch is appreciated. He remembers people's names; he knows how to tell a good farm animal; he professes to be a beer man, not a wine man - a dig at the bourgeois Balladurs and their burgundies. As a politician, he is as adept in the company of a few as playing the orator before thousands. He was always a good orator; now, according to those who have followed his career, he is better than ever.

Part of his new success is put down to the intervention of his 32-year- old daughter, Claude, who has appointed herself adviser, manager and general consultant. She is said to decide everything, from where he goes to what colour shirt he wears. She is also believed to have persuaded him to use the perspex screen readers that have helped politicians on public platforms around the world to look as though they are addressing their audiences, rather than reading from a script.

Mr Chirac's populism is deceptive, however. His education and background are as privileged as those of any of his rivals for the presidency. At 62, he has a touch of the patron about him, almost, but not quite, condescending, as he bends from his 6ft-plus height to smile and shake hands. But that has not aroused anything like the resentment, especially among young people, that Mr Balladur sometimes provokes.

The hue and cry about Mr Balladur's assets, which forced him to reveal details of his three residences, a consultancy and his share options, has not been replicated with Mr Chirac. He was allowed quietly to state that he had his two "houses" in the country, and a Paris flat, how much he bought them for (very little), and how much tax he pays (even less), with not a whisper of criticism from the French media, or the public. They seem to trust him.

Perhaps he learnt his popular touch in America, where he had a spell at Harvard and worked through vacations tending a soda fountain and chauffeuring elderly ladies. In style and manner, though, he is the most quintessentially French of all the candidates. For this reason, despite his command of English, the British may find him the most difficult of all the prospective presidents to deal with. He may have bowed a little in the direction of Whitehall in his stress on national sovereignty and reforming the European Union, but he had his own reasons for doing so. A large section of French public opinion is also concerned that the EU is building a remote, non- accountable empire. And Mr Chirac, Gaullist that he is, cannot afford to have an expanded Europe slip from beneath French influence.

"Politics," Mr Chirac likes to say, "is not just the art of the possible, but the art of making possible what is necessary." What is necessary now, he tells his rallies, is a blend of socialist-style measures to cut unemployment and help the young and homeless, plus tax cuts and some severe, Thatcher- style fiscal discipline to pay for it all.

This mix of left and right, and his talk of "change" leave some perplexed. They speak of internal contradictions and accuse him of changing his views from one campaign to the next. In 1988, he was the mainstream right-winger opposing the Socialist Franois Mitterrand. This time, when it seemed he would be competing against Mr Balladur in the second round, people spoke of a right-right contest. Now that he seems to have an equal chance of facing the Socialist candidate, Lionel Jospin, people are speaking of a left-left contest.

Many voters, though, incline to the view, heavily peddled by his campaign group, that this is the "real Chirac", and even some of his sharpest critics agree. For the first time, they say, Mr Chirac has no set of "gurus" to advise him on every question. He has a team, an intellectually strong one at that, but no gurus. He commissions working papers, considers them - and then writes his own version.

Jacques Chirac has twice been prime minister of France, and twice been disappointed for the presidency. There was a view that his record of presidential failure might cause voters to write him off as a loser, but the effect seems increasingly to have been the opposite. If he wants it so much as to risk humiliation again, they are saying, perhaps we should give him a chance. Then they recall the apple tree, and smile, indulgently.