Behind Chirac's six-decade marriage, a litany of affairs

Paris (AFP) –


Jacques Chirac, who died Thursday aged 86, was accompanied throughout his political life by his wife Bernadette, who took on high-profile roles in her own right while turning a blind eye to her husband's affairs with other women.

"It wasn't just a marriage of love, but a marriage of ambition," Bernadette admitted in 2015, a rare public comment from a French first lady who for most of their six decades of marriage kept her private life to herself.

France is accustomed to sexual adventures by its presidents: Francois Mitterrand had a daughter out of wedlock, Nicolas Sarkozy divorced his wife and married a model months after taking office, and Francois Hollande was caught cheating on his girlfriend with an actress.

But the rumours of Chirac's infidelities were in a league of their own, following him virtually from the beginning of his career, which took off a few years after his marriage to Bernadette in 1956.

Tales from his longtime driver earned him the sobriquet of "Five minutes, shower included", while journalists told of a studio apartment he made available above his Paris party headquarters for trysts.

For years Bernadette, now 86, kept silent, even amid one of Chirac's most notorious relationships in the 1970s when he fell for a reporter for French daily Le Figaro, an affair which became common knowledge among Paris media and political circles.

But her stoic acceptance eventually gave way. In a 2001 book of interviews she revealed that "the girls, they galloped all around, I know them all."

Yet the philandering continued: In a farcical scene captured on camera in 2009, Chirac flirts ostentatiously with a younger blonde woman, insisting she sit beside him while Bernadette gives a speech.

Chirac keeps chatting her up until his wife finally turns from the podium to give him a withering glance. A sheepish Chirac quickly shuts up.

In 2016, Bernadette finally described at length the pain of knowing that "all men of power or large fortunes attract women" in a televised interview.

"In the beginning it was hard, and I was often quite sad. But afterwards I accepted it. I told myself that was how it was, and would have to suffer it with as much dignity as possible."

- 'Immense solitude' -

In the early years of Chirac's career Bernadette stayed out of the spotlight, the daughter of a Paris family of diplomats with no interest in coming under public scrutiny -- unless it could help her husband's political ascent.

But in 1971 she was elected a local councillor in the Sarran commune of Chirac's Correze constituency, and eight years later became the first female councillor for Correze, a seat she held until 2015.

And her presidency of the French hospitals foundation made her the public face of the hugely popular "Yellow Coins" campaign to raise money for childrens' hospital stays.

Bernadette also emerged as a key adviser, reportedly among the few to warn Chirac about the far-right threat to his 2002 re-election bid, which saw the National Front's Jean-Marie Le Pen shock advance to the second round of voting.

But she didn't hesitate to break ranks, maintaining her affection for Chirac's protege Nicolas Sarkozy even after he abandoned Chirac for his rival Edouard Balladur in the 1995 race for the presidency.

Yet the couple was also bonded in tragedy: the chronic anorexia of their eldest daughter Laurence, whose sudden death in 2016 shook the family deeply.

"The tragedy of my life," Jacques Chirac once confided, while Bernadette would allude to "the immense solitude of families" facing a grave illness.

A few months later, in September 2016, both would be hospitalised within a few days of each other: Jacques Chirac for a lung infection, while Bernadette needed "to recuperate a bit."