The mere mention of the word ‘politician’ and a bitter taste collects in my mouth.
As 2004 rolled around, I had already been living in France for 8 years and working as a freelance television news cameraman. In November of that year, a respected British broadcaster booked me to join the crew for their flagship current affairs programme for an interview with President Chirac.
Apart from the President himself, I was one of three French speakers on the team. After the interview, Monsieur le President was chatting to the programme’s host, as we the jeans-clad crew, were packing up as carefully as possible. Our ad-hoc studio inside the Elysée Palace was in one of those ‘meet-and-greet’ reception rooms you see on the evening news, you know the kind: foreign dignitaries arrive, met by the President as news crews and photographers hurriedly capture the official handshakes and the forced smiles. The reception room we were in was heaving with antique ‘bling’, so every care was taken not to smack into a vase, or whatever priced at something outrageous.
As I was packing up my camera, a figure loomed up in my peripheral vision. The President had wandered over to me to ask if I’d seen the official photographer “No, Monsieur le President,” I replied, “I haven’t”.
“Well, let’s go and look for him together,” he said, “two heads are better than one.” And with that, he took me by the elbow and he walked out of the reception room and into the inner recesses of the Elysée Palace.
A sumptuous ballroom gave way to lots of smaller reception rooms and a rabbit warren of corridors. Mystery doors set into the walls leading to hidden staircases and staff access ways. As we walked through the ground floor of the Palace, we chatted and I told him that I lived 2 kms down at the other end of rue Saint Honoré (his road). “Oh really? Well don’t worry,” he said “if any of your post gets delivered here by mistake, I’ll make sure it’s sent on to you”, followed by a cheeky grin.
We kept looking for the Palace photographer.
As our search continued, the occasional Palace employee crossed our path, some laden down with trays of cutlery, others with perfectly ironed table linen. Chirac was 6’2” (189cm) and as his lofty figure emerged round corners, he stopped and asked each beautifully uniformed staffer if they’d seen the official photographer. No one had seen him but he thanked each one following their replies to his question. “Oh well,” he said turning to me “let’s go back”.
Lo and behold, while we were out on our tour, the Palace photographer had arrived - no doubt after using one of the many secret doors leading to yet another set of hidden passageways.
Monsieur le President placed his hand on my shoulder “Thank you for your help”, and strode towards the photographer and took control of the situation.
Chirac served as Paris Mayor, French Prime Minister (twice), and then President (again, twice). OK, he was a serial philanderer and the only President to be convicted of corruption, but he exhibited something that today's politicians lack - real charm.
... even towards a British cameraman dressed in jeans who spoke reasonable French.