13 SEPTEMBER 2003, Page 16

Chirac and the son of Nippon

Philip Delves Broughton ponders the silence of the French media in the face of revelations that the last three presidents have had second families


lyv. ithin the next few months, Jacques Chirac's illegitimate son will turn 18 and the French press will face a dilemma. Do they celebrate his majority on the front page of Paris Match? Or do they keep it as hush-hush as they have in the past out of courtesy, respect for a statesman's private life and fear?

I talk of Chirac's illegitimate son as if he were a fact, but all I have to go on is ever more brazen Parisian gossip which says that we are in 1994 all over again, counting down to when Paris Match put Mazarine Pingeot on its front cover and the world found out that Francois Mitterrand had a 19-year-old daughter who lived with his long-standing mistress in a government flat on the Left Bank.

The latest to edge towards unmasking Chirac's supposed second family is Guy Birenbaum, a prominent literary editor and author of Our Insider Trading. a book published last week which blames Paris's political, media and financial elite for presenting a culture of secrecy. In a chapter titled 'Chirac-San', he assembles the case for the existence of Chirac's Japanese son.

According to Birenbaum, the Paris that matters knows, as they knew about Mazarine. But being discreet, French and worldly about adultery — unlike the sweaty-palmed AngloSaxons — they have kept it to themselves. He says he knows the identity of the boy's mother, but rather than naming her he tantalises us. 'Madame X,' he writes, 'is the vice-president of one of the best-known and most influential Western art galleries in Japan. She is also director of a gallery in Paris, with a base in the 8th arrondissement, a stone's throw from the Elysee Palace. She was made a Chevalier des Arts et Lettres when Jacques Chirac was Francois Mitterrand's prime minister [1985 to 1987]. She is the mother of three daughters.' He adds that she is no longer his mistress.

What makes these allegations so believable is what we already know of Chirac. Even his own wife, Bernadette, has alluded to his womanising, saying in her memoirs that it has been tough being married to a man whom so many other women find attractive. Chirac's affairs, if you believe the books about him, have been on a Kennedyesque. or at least Mitterrand, scale, with an emphasis on quickies and quantity.

We also know that he is fascinated by Japan. He is so obsessed with sumo that he

has had a special cable service installed at the Elysee so that he can watch matches live from Japan. At his personal museum in the Correze, the most impressive section by far features his collection of sumo memorabilia. Even his dog is called Sumo.

Since first visiting Japan in 1970 to open the French pavilion at an international exposition in Osaka, he has returned 54 times, sometimes on private trips, often on the flimsiest official pretexts. In the past 12 months, he was twice due to visit Japan but had to cancel because of Iraq.

Within his close political circle, Japan specialists abound, notably Maurice GourdaultMontagne, Chirac's chief diplomatic sherpa, who served as ambassador to Japan between 1999 and 2002. Being able to talk Japanese art, poetry and wrestling is the mark of a presidential insider. Dominique de Villepin, the foreign minister and Chirac's former chief of staff, and Alain Juppe, his former prime minister, are both big on Japan.

The French like to imagine that their attitude to Chirac's alleged Japanese lovechild would be to say that it was none of their business. When Mitterrand admitted Mazarine's existence to a group of journalists, he concluded by saying 'et 'Wars?' . Which would be fine if the illegitimate children were the end of it. But in order to conceal Mazarine's existence, Mitterrand secretly provided her and her mother with government housing, wiretapped those who knew about her, threatened the career of anyone who tried to expose her, and waited until the end of his presidency to let the news leak out, which suggests that he was not all that confident that his voters would give him an 'et alms?' pass on his private life.

Chirac, too, has often behaved like a man with secrets. He had the law on presidential immunity changed to protect himself against awkward magistrates' questions about the system of cash bribes and kickbacks that operated at the Paris town hall while he was mayor. During the seven years before he became President, he spent hundreds of thousands of pounds on private first-class travel with his wife and daughter, paid for in cash. Investigators have never established where all this money came from or why the Chimes never used cheques or credit cards.

Chirac's trips to Japan were mostly paid for by the administrators of the Imperial Prize, Japan's answer to the Nobel prizes, whom he has served as an honorary adviser since 1988. He receives about .E65,000 a year to cover the travel costs associated with these light duties, But a shadier link with Japan was suggested last year after Chirac sacked the heads of France's domestic and international secret services. Le Monde said the President was angry with the two men for investigating claims that he had dubious financial connections in Japan and Lebanon. The article referred to Chirac as a 'well-known lover of Japan' — exactly the kind of nudge-nudge language which, once you know what it's referring to, you find repeatedly in the French press.

Earlier this year, a book called 'It's off the record . . . Understood?' by a leading political journalist, Daniel Carton, blamed the French press for not standing up to politicians, for keeping secrets from the public and for failing in its basic duties as the fourth estate. Sadly, Carton did not reveal very much himself. Except, buried away in a final chapter was the claim that Valery Giscard d'Estaing had pulled strings to have his long-time colleague and mistress, Christine de Veyrac, put high on a candidates' list for the European parliamentary elections in 1999, which duly saw her victorious. Mme de Veyrac, Carton implied, in the vaguest terms and with no supporting evidence, has a son by Giscard whom everyone in Paris knows about but does not discuss.

So, if Birenbaum and Carton are right, the past three French presidents have all had illegitimate children and used their positions to conceal, help and financially manage their second families. Even the sexually worldly French might question a political system that allows this.

When Kenneth Starr went after Bill Clinton on Monica Lewinsky, he was trying to prove a pattern of behaviour which went well beyond sex. He wanted to demonstrate that, whenever Clinton misbehaved — politically, financially or sexually — his reaction was to lie about it, then threaten, buy off or trash the reputation of his accuser. But the details of the sex dazzled everyone and Starr never quite joined the dots. Clinton walked free, embarrassed but still in office.

Mitterrand had spent a lifetime cultivating his image as an almost mystical aesthete, educated and experienced to a point far beyond most mortals. He mused on the pharaohs, Casanova and astrology, so by the time we found out about Mazarine it was almost unexpected. It was only after he died that we discovered the nasty stuff — the wiretaps, threats, and so on. Had this come out when he was still in office, he might have had real problems.

If Chirac's son does exist and someone somewhere produces a photograph of him, it will be another humiliation for the French press. They kept silent for years on Mitterrand's service in the Vichy government, and again on Mazarine. If they are shown to have kept shtoom on Chirac's secret life and allowed him to abuse his various offices to protect it, which is what all these books and winking allusions in the press seem to suggest, they may as well give up.