How far from a prison sentence to running for French president? Ask Alain Juppé

More than a decade after his political disgrace, Alain Juppé is a strong contender in the 2017 race for president. Michelle de La Rosa Lewis takes a look at the chequered career of a man who divides opinion

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Ro'OLD WISE man''; 'walking computer'; and 'arrogant technocrat' are only some of the epithets that have been showered upon Alain Juppé over the past 40 years.

Yet despite his 70 years and a reputation for being cold and distant, neither friend nor foe can deny that all eyes are directed his way. With the presidential elections due next year, many polls are putting the former prime minister in pole position to be the Les Républicains (LR) candidate, ahead of ex-president Nicolas Sarkozy.

His year-long exclusion from electoral participation after being convicted in 2004 for misusing public money has not been forgotten, but it does seem to be forgiven. Mr Juppé, now mayor of Bordeaux, has revamped that city and in so doing convinced the French people that the days of his condemnation are long gone.

Bordeaux certainly deserves its alias, “the sleeping beauty”. With its charming 18th-century streets and daily temperamental battles between sun and rain, this city has character; Mr Juppé has worked hard to preserve it, focusing his efforts on the metropolis where repeated election victories have seen him hold the office of mayor for most of the past twenty years.

Among his most striking projects are a tram service connecting the four corners of the city centre, a moving lift bridge over the river Garonne linking both halves of the city, and a renovation scheme to clean its blackened buildings – which had fallen victim to pollution. None of this came without a cost, however, and Bordeaux has one of the highest rates of local tax in the country.

But Mr Juppé cannot take all the blame for this. His predecessor, Jacques Chaban-Delmas – Bordeaux’s celebrated mayor for nearly half a century – left behind a small box of surprises, and when Mr Juppé first took office in 1995 he found himself facing an unexpected internal debt of €266million. Reining in his predecessor’s extravagant spending plans became an immediate priority for the new mayor – a huge underground transport project was cancelled and the city’s gas supply was privatised.

Jean Pétaux, a professor at the University of Political Science in Bordeaux, describes Mr Juppé as a man of contradictions: “It is as if he is the ‘goody two shoes’ in the class – very sensible, always the first to answer the teacher’s questions.

“However, at the same time, he is fascinated by the naughty boy on the other side of the class who is lazy, messes around, attracts all the girls… Alain Juppé is captivated by this behaviour but is incapable of it himself.”

Mr Pétaux highlights that this type of personality does not favour a successful political career: “To really win in politics, especially in the French system, you have to be an ‘assassin’… you have to differentiate morality from politics. And I am not sure that Alain Juppé is an assassin.

“In the world of politics, in my opinion, that is a defect. Maybe he is going to show us that you can triumph without being an assassin, or maybe he really is an assassin and we just do not know it yet.” Mr Pétaux contrasts this with the current President François Hollande, whom he describes as “a true assassin”.

But this view of the Bordeaux mayor as a mild-mannered, non-confrontational personality is not shared by Matthieu Rouveyre, who has held a seat on the city’s municipal council for the opposition Parti Socialiste (PS) since 2006 and considers himself to be “Alain Juppé’s pet peeve”.

He said: “We have quite a strained relationship – but I respect him. With regards to his personality, he gets angry very easily, on a daily basis. He is rigid, dry, cutting… it is not rare for him to silence his own co-workers in a town council meeting.”

Mr Rouveyre is also critical of the investments his rival has made during his time in office: “I condemn his large-scale projects, such as the football stadium, when Bordeaux needs crèches, swimming pools and schools. He is less preoccupied by Bordeaux’s inhabitants than by the standing of the city. Take the example of the cultural event EVENTO – that was a monumental flop and cost millions.”

Indeed, Mr Juppé’s cultural project has promised to materialise every year but been repeatedly postponed – EVENTO last took place in 2011 and cost €4.2million.

One of the reasons Mr Juppé is so popular is almost a contradiction in itself – he is not well liked by his own clan and has even been jeered at during party meetings. This perversely has made him popular with voters.

The Bordeaux mayor, who is married to ex-journalist and novelist Isabelle Bodin, is considered a man from the centre-right, but has tried to distance himself from the tarnished image of the Union pour un Mouvement Populaire (UMP), which changed its name to Les Républicains (LR) last year.

The leader of France’s centrist Mouvement Démocrate (MoDem) party, François Bayrou, has declared that he will not participate in the next general election if Mr Juppé wins the LR nomination for president – to avoid dividing votes from the centre.

Mr Juppé served as prime minister from 1995 to 1997, when Jacques Chirac was president. Mr Pétaux said of Mr Juppé during this period: “Everyone hated him! He turned the country upside down by wanting to reform social security as well as the health and retirement system.”

Strikes paralysed the country, with two million people taking to the streets toprotest against Mr Juppé’s measures, and French voters subsequently punished him at the ballot box in 1997, depriving him of his chance to win the election and his opportunity to become president.

Seven years later, Mr Juppé was convicted for misusing taxpayers’ money and received an 18-month suspended prison sentence and a decade-long ban from running for office. Mr Juppé was found to have hired full-time political employees at the expense of Paris’s town council – using the city’s money to exclusively benefit his own party. The sentence was later reduced to one year.

At the time, Mr Juppé was in charge of Paris’s finances and answered directly to President Chirac: many see the case as a sacrificial act on his behalf, believing that he took a bullet for his admired mentor, who received a two-year suspended prison sentence in 2011.

But that view is not shared by everyone. A mayor belonging to the green Europe écologie les Verts party who wishes to stay anonymous is not convinced: “A man with a criminal record should not be in politics. In my opinion, he is part of a mafia network.”

Whether Mr Juppé’s brush with the law arose out of “loyalty or stupidity” – as the political scientist Patrick Troude-Chastenet puts it – he decided to head to Canada to lie low after his conviction. He was refused by the University of Quebec at Montreal but was accepted – not without controversy – by Quebec’s National Public Administration School, where he taught globalisation. Many did not think he would be coming back.

But in 2006 he reappeared, winning the mayoralty in the first round. Mr Pétaux said: “No one is dead in politics. I am not even sure that [former IMF head and French Minister of Finance] Dominique Strauss-Kahn is dead politically!”

Mr Troude-Chastenet likens the Bordeaux mayor to “a great intellectual machine that has had to deal with some rough times”.

Perhaps it is this rough, chequered past that has given Mr Juppé a reputation for hardness.

Mr Pétaux says that in France, there are two types of politicians that charm the public: “Firstly, there are those who represent a protective and regulatory authority, like Jacques Chirac and Charles de Gaulle, and Mr Juppé is a mix between these two figures. The other type is bellicose, macho, perverted… like Dominique Strauss-Kahn, Napoleon and Sarkozy.”

Mr Juppé has already announced that if he wins the presidential elections, he will only present himself for a single five-year mandate. If he does not get picked to be the LR candidate, he may stand as an independent. He is unlikely to get another shot at the presidency – it is now or never.

“At his age, it is better if he lives many failures rather than many regrets,” said one member of his intimate circle who wishes to stay anonymous.

If Mr Juppé is elected as France’s president next year he will, at 72, become the oldest person to first take the office in its history.