PARIS — When Jacques Chirac moved from the Paris mayor's office to the presidential palace in May, he promised to remember the downtrodden.
To demonstrate his sincerity, he sold the presidential fleet of airplanes and ordered his motorcade to obey traffic lights--making him, one commentator wryly observed, the first French motorist in history to stop at a red light.
But now revelations about Chirac's old job have shaken that carefully crafted man-of-the-people image. It has emerged that during his 18-year tenure as mayor of the French capital, City Hall kept a secret roster of luxury apartments that it leased, at cut rates, to civil servants and politicians, including the current prime minister, Alain Juppe.
Paris Mayor Jean Tiberi, Chirac's handpicked successor, is struggling to repair the political damage. But as Chirac's former housing chief and a beneficiary of the favors, Tiberi may never become an effective leader of France's largest city, analysts say.
In addition, the poll ratings of both Chirac and Juppe already have begun to fall sharply.
The current scandal, which some are calling Chiractown, was first unearthed by the satirical investigative weekly newspaper Le Canard Enchaine. During the presidential campaign, the paper revealed that Chirac had benefited from preferential rent on his Paris apartment, which was owned by the city's own housing company. But that issue died when Chirac, his popularity then at an all-time high, denied any impropriety.
This time, though, Le Canard Enchaine has more. And other newspapers are helping carry the torch, devoting pages of coverage to the affair.
Tiberi has now acknowledged that the city of Paris under Chirac had a special, confidential list of more than 1,000 "private domain" apartments, many in highly desirable areas, that the mayor and other senior officials leased to Chirac cronies, civil servants and even journalists for less than half the market rate.
And not only that, but the city often renovated the apartments, at taxpayer expense, before leasing them. Some officials found the deal so lucrative that they also got apartments for their children, and many lived in city-owned apartments while renting out their private dwellings.
Among them was Tiberi, who has acknowledged that his two adult children lived in city apartments, at low rent, while leasing out their own apartments.
But the big surprise was Prime Minister Juppe, the former foreign minister. Juppe, considered one of the most able men in government, leased one of the luxury apartments from the city and accepted $160,000 in city renovations. His ex-wife, son and daughter also live in city apartments.
Moreover, when the city's department of housing offered Juppe's son a larger, three-room apartment for 7,000 francs (about $1,400) a month, less than half the market rent, Juppe accepted, but next to his signature on the document, he changed the rent to 6,000 francs. The city accepted.
Chirac has said nothing about the scandal. Juppe, admitting "no favors, no irregularities," has chosen to counterattack by blaming journalists for trying to destabilize his government.
The matter already has become a political football, partly because no one is sure whose name is on the list of beneficiaries. It's safe to say that it includes people from both sides of the political aisle. In fact, the government-supporting newspaper Le Figaro named a few names this week, all of them left-wing politicians.
Tiberi, who oversaw the housing perks during Chirac's tenure, has promised to sell the city's luxury apartments.
But critics are worried that the selloff, at auction, will allow the tenants to buy their apartments at low prices.
Meanwhile, Paris newspapers continue to beat the drum.
"Juppe, father and son, tenants," the influential daily Le Monde sputtered. "That is too much. Flabbergasting."