France: Chirac's Vacation Follies

It's August. toute laFrance is on vacation. Time to kick back, relax and soak up some rays. Even picking up the newspaper requires a special effort this time of year.

Especially if you're Jacques Chirac. The poor French president has been the butt of a merciless summer of political lampooning. And it's only gotten worse now that Chirac himself is en vacances. The media of all stripes and every political color are pitching in. None has been more biting than the investigative paper Le Canard Enchaine, which has been lighting into him week after week. One recent cartoon showed the president reclining forlornly in a beach chair, too weary to read the newspaper crumpled at his side. Another had him watching home movies of himself taken last summer in Mauritius, wishing he were there and not cooped up and bored, an unhappy prisoner of his official residence at Fort Bregancon on the French Riviera.

Chirac's woes began a year ago when Paris Match glossed its pages with dish on his last holiday. BONNES VACANCES, MONSIEUR LE PRESIDENT ran the headline, along with the juicy disclosure that the president's suite at the Royal Palm Hotel in Mauritius cost taxpayers $3,100 a night--triple the monthly earnings of a minimum-wage worker in France. Extravagant though it may have been, however, it was within the limits of the law. But this summer, when the press discovered how some of Chirac's other vacations had been financed, the merde began to fly. Between 1992 and 1995, when he was still mayor of Paris, Chirac is alleged to have used more than $400,000 in government funds (cash, no less) to buy luxurious trips for himself, friends and family. The jaunts included a trip to New York by Concorde, Tokyo and, yes, beloved Mauritius. (Chirac has acknowledged that money for some of the trips came from state coffers, but argues that was customary practice.)

Travelgate, as the affair's been dubbed, has proved more than grating on the president's peace of mind. fire in the house of chirac blared the left-leaning French daily Liberation on one July cover. The day before, Chirac's daughter and communications adviser Claude was called to answer questions before a panel of judges about her trips with Dad. "We're going to have to create a law exam in order to keep up with the soap opera of Mr. Chirac's vacations," wrote Liberation. The editorial was accompanied by a photo of the president and his family looking besieged. Liberation even speculated that the president's penchant for the tropics had spilled over into his governing style. Had France become a "banana republic" ?

So this summer, with the presidential election coming up next year, his staff ruled: no controversial vacations. That relegated Chirac to his government-provided Mediterranean fort. But hardly had he settled in two weeks ago than the press exploded yet again, this time with a story concerning the president's 16th-century chateau in central France. According to Le Canard Enchaine, five hectares of land adjacent to the Chateau de Bity were bought in 1978 by the charitable Claude Pompidou Foundation, of which Chirac was then treasurer. Almost immediately after, subsidies coming from the Paris City Hall (where Chirac was mayor) doubled in size. The Pompidou Foundation had little to say to curious journalists about the mysterious transaction. But former French president Georges Pompidou, Chirac's political mentor, apparently couldn't resist the temptation to get in a gibe at his former under-study. A politician should never own a chateau, he jested, unless it's been in the family since Louis XV.

When Chirac returns to Paris this week, he'll no doubt be more exhausted than rejuvenated by his fretful estivation. And for good reason. In October France's highest court, the Cour de Cassation, will rule on whether the president can be summoned to testify in the investigation of his state-paid holidays. Add to this other flaps linked to the president, from payoffs on big Paris construction projects to secret party slush funds. It's probably not enough to deter Chirac from his re-election bid. But yet another cartoon last week captured his predicament perfectly. It showed the president gazing out from the ramparts of Fort Bregancon, vowing that next summer he would be sunning himself in Thailand or the Antilles, if not Mauritius. He may well be. But as president?