Alain Juppe, France's master of political re-invention

Adam PLOWRIGHT
"I confirm for a final time that I will not be a candidate to be president of the republic," Juppe, 71, told a news conference in his hometown Bordeaux

Alain Juppe, who may get a new shot at the French presidency thanks to a fake jobs scandal engulfing fellow conservative Francois Fillon, has a gift for re-inventing himself.

Written off as finished on more than one occasion, the 71-year-old mayor of Bordeaux and former prime minister has rebounded from wretched lows.

Juppe went into self-imposed exile to Canada in 2004 after he was convicted over a party finance scandal from the 1980s when he was finance director at Paris City Hall, then run by mayor Jacques Chirac.

Chirac, who would go on to become a two-term president and a life-long backer of Juppe, once famously described his protege as "probably the best among us".

- Suspended jail sentence -

Juppe sat out a 14-month suspended jail term, as well as a one-year ban on holding public office, in the French-Canadian city of Montreal with his second wife and daughter, taking up a teaching post.

At the time, foretelling his remarkable return, Juppe said "there are always possibilities for resurrection" in politics.

This would start with his re-election as mayor of Bordeaux in 2006 in France's southwestern wine-growing region, a political fiefdom he has helped transform in the last 20 years.

Bolstering his reputation as a hard-working technocrat, he is credited with developing tourism, transport and business in the elegant city.

Combining regional and national roles, in 2007 Juppe was brought back into the government under then president Nicolas Sarkozy, who saw his own hopes of a return to power dashed in the conservatives' primary last November.

Over time, a view developed that Juppe's criminal conviction was the result of loyalty, that he had taken a hit for others, allowing him again to set his sights on the gilded presidential Elysee Palace.

- A 'happy' France -

One of France's most familiar political figures, known abroad after a stint as foreign minister in 2011, Juppe began the primary campaign with polls routinely showing him as the country's "most popular" politician.

This was an astonishing contrast to the reputation he suffered during a bruising two-year term as premier under Chirac marked by massive nationwide protests against his proposed welfare reforms in 1995.

Juppe and Chirac were among France's most despised public figures as railway workers, civil servants and air traffic controllers joined one of the biggest strikes in decades.

Fast forward to last year's primary season when the lanky, bald-headed father-of-three sought to counter his image as a humourless or even arrogant intellectual with a softer, more inclusive pitch.

Juppe portrayed himself as a stable, experienced administrator and promised a "happy" national identity in a country riven by fear about terror attacks and immigration.

While his programme touted typically reformist centre-right priorities, he advocated public sector job cuts that would be less "brutal" than Fillon's proposal to eliminate half a million posts.

As campaigning for the November vote wore on however, Juppe lost traction and Fillon -- campaigning as a sleaze-free candidate at that time -- clinched the nomination.

Since that defeat, Juppe has kept a low profile in Bordeaux, though his entourage signalled Friday that he would be ready to step in as the Republicans' presidential candidate if Fillon moves aside.

Born on August 15, 1945, into a modest family, Juppe had what he describes as a happy and religious childhood among the pine forests of the rural Les Landes area of southwest France.

After leaving to study in Paris, he graduated from top universities and like most of the political elite passed through the Ecole Nationale d'Administration (ENA).

"I am proud, I have a certain idea of who I am," he told a recent French television documentary titled "Juppe, The Resuscitated".