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Letter from Paris - John Laurenson on Claude Chirac's crucial but understated electoral role. (Thursday, 21 March, 2002, 13:19 GMT)

When Jacques Chirac walks into the room you know that it is only a matter of seconds before you get your hand vigorously shaken. At the very least. If you are a woman, you're in for the bises or peck on the cheek. If you are a woman with a daughter, he'll say he hopes she grows up to be as beautiful as her maman.

There's no-one in French politics who knows how to work a crowd -- take a 'crowd bath' as they say here -- like the founder of the Gaullist RPR.

His daughter, on the other hand, is a bit of a cold shower. Tight-lipped and rather lacking in human warmth, the thirty-nine year old Claude Chirac is more formidable than formidable. While her father laughs and waves his arms about, she'll be calmly and
discreetly observing the proceedings.

She'll be dressed in the expensive/anonymous style of the 16th arrondissement complete with white leather moccassins and Chanel handbag -- if you don't recognise her, you won't see her. But if something displeases Chirac fille, she'll whisper in an ear and the problem will be rectified quickly and without fuss. There's an iron hand in the Hermes glove.

But Claude Chirac does far more than chaperone her father. She, to coin a phrase, is the RPR-PR. It was she who decided to accompany her father's arrivals at rallies with the rousing theme from Chariots of Fire. She again who chose his new slogan: France Together. It's she who picks his clothes and chooses his ties and advises him on which hair dye to use. Black is the answer, apart from around the temples. They've stayed grey to convey maturity.

Every so often Claude Chirac is criticised for meddling in politics -- of which, the waspish voices around the Elysée Palace will tell you, she knows and cares little. It was she, for example, who warned Chirac against responding in kind when Lionel Jospin called him tired, worn-out and old. Instead she had him sing the national anthem with even more gusto at a triumphant rally in Marseille.

This is the business of Claude Chirac. Le packaging. It might seem derisory -- theme
tunes and hair dye -- but with precious little dividing the two main candidates when it comes to policy, the advice of a doting daughter could be the stuff of victory.

For Europe Today, this is John Laurenson in Paris.

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