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Jacques Chirac: A Profile

THURSDAY 4th April 2002

In the three decades of his political career, the man they call "The Bulldozer" has forged his own path and proved a thorn in the side of more than one French government.

Now President Jacques Chirac stands centre stage himself, waves goodbye to the franc and finds himself firmly in the eye of the ever-brewing federal storm.

Gaullist

It took him three attempts to take up residency in the president's Elysee Palace, but, from the outset of his career, Chirac has been one to watch. Back in 1967, the then Premier Georges Pompidou was struck by the young fellow Gaullist and made him a junior minister. Seven years later, under President Valery Giscard D'Estaing, Chirac was himself premier.

Even then, Chirac felt he lacked power and was soon off forming his own neo-Gaullist party, the RPR. As the longtime mayor of Paris, he enjoyed a day-to-day contact with the electorate that his political rivals were unable to match.

Battling with Mitterand

Chirac was defeated by the veteran socialist Francois Mitterand in the 1981 presidential elections, and watched helplessly as the man nicknamed Dieu - God, enjoyed the full extent of his powers. But despite an uneasy relationship between the pair, Mitterand made Chirac prime minister again in 1986. Left and Right were 'cohabiting', but it was awkward.

During this second term, Chirac cut a controversial figure. Students were striking at home over his planned reform of the university system, and he was attacked for his role in the release of French hostages from Lebanon. Many suspected Chirac of making a deal with the kidnappers, a charge he has always denied. Mitterand again emerged as president at the following elections, and the headstrong Chirac resigned from office.

Third time lucky

Time was on his side, however. From his observation point in the political wilderness, Chirac could see French attitudes changing. On taxation, privatisation, the role of the state, opinion was shifting to the Right. And Chirac was ready to be its standard bearer.

At his third attempt, the Bulldozer finally stormed the gates of the Elysee Palace in 1995 and became the French president. In the time since, he has outraged and impressed in equal measure.

Personal touch

Within six weeks of his inauguration, Chirac announced the resumption of French nuclear tests in the South Pacific. World opinion was outraged, the French territory of Tahiti erupted in violent demonstration and a Greenpeace ship entered the test area. To calm the waters, Chirac was forced to send in the Foreign Legion.

And on French soil, he was berated for keeping interest rates high in order to shadow the Deutschmark, what he called the price to be paid for a single European currency.

But he has opened the doors on the presidency. Any French citizen can now speak to their leader by email, and walk on the pavement outside his palace.

It is never obvious on what side of the fence Chirac is going to stand, and his decisions often surprise. But his strength of character, as well as his considerable charm, make him a valuable ally and leading light on the international political stage. He remains one to watch.