After Barbie, "Berniemania" in sight? With her brush-blown blond blow-dry, her Chanel suits, her austere air and her sunglasses, Bernadette Chirac, Bernie for the intimates (nickname given to her, as a child, her grandson), now 90 years old, remains an extraordinary character in French political life. And a pop icon, restyled in his time by Karl Lagerfeld. As such, she deserved to be the heroine of a popular comedy. Directed by Léa Domenach, Bernadette, this real fake biopic (in theaters on October 4) which traces the rise of the former first lady, announces, despite the reluctance of the Chirac family, colorful, especially with Catherine Deneuve (who else?) in the role. The opportunity to take stock of his eventful life, with Erwan L'Éléouet, editor-in-chief of Un jour, un destin (France 3), author of Bernadette Chirac, les secrets d'une conquête (Ed. Fayard, 2019).
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Madame Figaro. – A film about Bernadette Chirac, does it surprise you? Erwan L'Éléouet.–Not at all. There is a real comic force in the character. Sometimes at his expense, but not always. She can have the scathing sentence, as when she declares about Marie-France Garaud (advisor toJacques Chiracin the 1970s, Editor's note): "She took me for a perfect fool. His mistake was not to distrust me enough. You can never be too suspicious of good women. We have never known a first lady as popular as her.
Does the choice of Catherine Deneuve to embody it seem relevant to you?
Yes, because we needed a very charismatic actress. Deneuve has an off-road side, she can play the drama, but she is also Potiche's wife. She is classic and rock'n'roll at the same time, like Madame Chirac. If the scene of "Quotidien", where we see Jacques Chirac flirting with the socialist deputy Sophie Dessus and Bernadette catch him red-handed, has become so cult, it is also for the humor she showed in that moment.
Bernadette, is she our own Queen of England?
When I visited her for my book, in the apartment rue de Tournon, in Paris, that François Pinault had made available to her, there was a picture of her with Elizabeth II of England. It's quite amazing to see this shot, because they are both dressed in white. However, protocol dictates that the one who welcomes the queen does not dress in the same color as her.
What do they have in common?
They share the idea of belonging to a lineage, even if it is obviously not the same between the nobility and the upper bourgeoisie, and of carrying high family, traditional and religious values, a sense of homeland and duty. Bernadette often referred to her grandfather who had served General de Gaulle, and, for her, it was not insignificant to have managed to make history.
Bernadette Chodron de Courcel has an absolute rigour: we do not show our feelings, we do not reveal our weaknesses to the press.
She also received a very strict upbringing, reminiscent of the royal mottoNever explain, never complain.
Yes, Bernadette Chodron de Courcel has an absolute rigor: we do not show our feelings, we do not reveal our weaknesses to the press. You have to hold your rank, be unassailable. She got her education from the war – her father was a prisoner in Germany, she spent those years in the Lot with her grandparents – and from her mother. She kept telling her "you'll cry another day," kicked her on the fingers with a ruler and slapped her when she sneezed, implying that she had caught a cold because she hadn't covered herself enough as she had ordered. I think she kept from this education a certain emotional handicap. Even though she said that this moral rigor had helped her in life to cope with wounds, penknife blows in the marriage contract and political betrayals.
Another parallel with the queen: her iconic handbag...
She had an assistant to carry this handbag so much mocked by Les Guignols. This is part of his caricature, with his very severe lacquered blonde helmet, his hardness and his sunglasses. An adviser to the Élysée told me that, in the morning, Bernadette's mood was measured by the opacity of her famous glasses. The darker the glasses, the harder the night had been. This whole part of the character both served her and made her iconic. Like the hats or neon suits of the Queen of England, her old France side was mocked. She ended up playing it, Karl Lagerfeld gave her a makeover, and she became pop. What saved her, again, was her humour. Because if she can be scathing, cruel and nasty, she also knows how to caricature people in one stroke, like Dominique de Villepin whom she nicknames Nero. She also has an eccentric side. She brings clowns and wild cats for Christmas from the Élysée, installs lions and tigers in the gardens and makes them serve the best steaks in Paris. She may also find herself typing the chat with a car convenience store or kebab seller. She is funny, clever, she breaks the codes.
Is it with the operation of the yellow coins that she became a character much loved by the French?
Yes, it was the operation that changed everything. It was to collect yellow coins to help families with a child or loved one in hospital. This very universal cause pleased, and Bernadette Chirac managed to mobilize children, parents, grandparents. And prestigious partners such as TF1, SNCF or La Poste. She felt that with this cause, she would finally be able to reach the French. It was her chief of staff, Bernard Niquet, who had known her at the Paris City Hall, who forced her to reveal herself, to split the armor.
In the film, we see Bernard Niquet (Denis Podalydès) detail a very negative pseudo-poll on Bernadette. Was his image as bad in the first place?
At the time, she had an image of a rough and authoritarian woman. I remember a 13 p.m. news show where journalist Patricia Charnelet interviews the wives of candidates for mayor of Paris, and Bernadette appears stuck, engorged and uncomfortable. Claude Chirac, who calls him Bouboule, believes that this may harm his father. With his tall size, his tanned complexion, his hair back, he passes for a voluntary and very active man. Next to it, she looks like a grandmother.
Is that why she will be ousted at the first garden party of the Élysée?
Yes, she is not in the official gallery alongside Jacques Chirac. And, at the request of Claude Chirac, he was removed from his cover at the table organized for the president with young people from the French regions. It has no place in the system. And when you call the Élysée and ask for Madame Chirac, you are passed Claude.
Bernadette serves Jacques Chirac, he is his best agent, his best partner, his best soldier
Will the release of his memoirs in 2001 change the situation?
Completely. Nowadays, no first lady would release a book like this. She reveals herself a lot, talks about the anorexia nervosa of her daughter Laurence, her difficulties with Claude, the incarcerations of her husband.
What kind of couple did she form with Jacques Chirac?
One observer said, "It was the marriage of carp and rabbit." They have nothing in common, but it works because she's a woman in love. She has never recovered from having landed the most handsome guy in the class of Sciences Po, which appeals to all young girls. They met there: as she was a very good student, Chirac asked her for her reading sheets and homework. There is a beginning of history.
In 1975, it was a humiliated woman who discovered that her husband, then Prime Minister, was having an affair with Jacqueline Chabridon, a journalist from Le Figaro...
Yes, and Marie-France Garaud asks the journalist to leave Jacques Chirac "in the name of France". Because divorce is impossible for one who aspires to higher office. And Bernadette does everything to bring her husband to his senses, because, beyond the wound caused by the deception, she fears losing the father of her children and that the family unit will break up. This is not the first time she has tried to bring Jacques back to the fold. In 1953, when Chirac, after Sciences Po, went to the United States to attend summer courses at Harvard, she learned that he had an American fiancée there. A fine strategist, she goes to her future parents-in-law to ask them to make her listen to reason. And it is Monsieur Chirac who asks Jacques to renounce this story and return to Paris. This sets the tone for their story. She had won, but at what cost?
Already, she had fought to impose it on her parents who were not convinced?
Yes, for the Chodron de Courcel family, Jacques Chirac, son of a Corrèze teacher turned banker, was not "well born". He also has a tricky side. When he became secretary of state, one of his first posts, he made Bernadette's parents believe that the Prime Minister was waiting for him at the bottom of the building, which was not true.
Together they will have two daughters?
Yes, Laurence, the most brilliant academically, who is destined for a career as a doctor, but who contracts meningitis at 15 during a holiday in Corsica. The disease is only the visible phase of anorexia nervosa and depression that are setting in. During her lifetime, she made countless suicide attempts. Even if the Chiracs are able to send cows to each other, this drama and the extreme pain of seeing their daughter or sister sink weld them together.
Bernadette is still three steps behind Jacques Chirac, still behind
Claude, the youngest, became his father's communications advisor in 1995, who became President of the Republic. What was his relationship with his mother?
Complicated. Claude wanted to dodge all the marriage contracts his mother had for her. Bernadette organizes a ball at the mayor of Paris, and Claude plants it: she is tired of her mother deciding for her. And then, Laurence's illness will reshuffle the family cards. Chirac enlists Claude at the Élysée to save her from "perdition": she is rebellious, she goes out a lot, she has trouble finding her way, she had a history with Vincent Lindon. And there, it will reveal itself. For his father, in the middle of the presidential campaign, Claude is an incredible asset. She is the one who sets up a security cordon to keep journalists at bay or puts her finger on her mouth to prevent her father from talking too much. She supports him against all, and leads his father to victory in this campaign that wants to touch the rural France, the deep France.
Like Claude, has Bernadette become a political animal?
Yes. Bernadette serves Jacques Chirac, he is his best agent, his best partner, his best soldier. Because it is a couple that has gone through trials, but it is also a couple of power. She entered politics in 1971. Despite her shyness, she does not want to disappoint her husband, and she ends up finding interest and pleasure in politics. In 1979, she was elected General Councillor of Corrèze. She later told a friend that it was the happiest day of her life. She is a woman on the ground: in 2002, she will have the intuition that Le Pen will be in the first round of the presidential election, and will understand that Chirac made a mistake by causing the dissolution of the National Assembly.
Why did Jacques Chirac call her THE "turtle"?
Because she is always three steps behind him, always late. We see it in the images of the electoral campaign in Corrèze, in the 1970s: he is still looking for it. She has a scholastic side, she notes all the grievances in school notebooks, has trouble putting an end to conversations, by shyness. He is the hare, who runs in front, and she, the tortoise. In the end, we didn't see it coming, but she caught up with him.
Bernadette , by Léa Domenach, with Catherine Deneuve, Michel Vuillermoz, Denis Podalydès, Sara Giraudeau.... Released on October 4.