The woman who brought the sun out


WHEN the President, Mrs Robinson, visited France in May 1996 for Imaginaire Irlandais, the six month festival of contemporary Irish culture, she dressed in French colours: bright red on arrival at the airport, royal blue when she made a courtesy call on President Jacques Chirac, who had succeeded Mr Mitterrand.

When she arrived in the courtyard of the Elysee Palace, the sun by chance burst through the rain clouds. Mr Chirac usually bids farewell to visitors at the door but, after his conversation with Mrs Robinson, he walked down the stairs with her and kissed her hand in front of waiting journalists.

She had brought the sun out, the French president announced. This was just a few months after Ireland had publicly criticised French nuclear testing in the South Pacific.

When Mrs Robinson's term ends in November, Ireland will lose a great asset in its, relations with France. Mr Mitterrand was so charmed by her that he accompanied Mrs Robinson to the France Ireland rugby match during an unofficial visit in 1994 - and Mr Mitterrand did not like sport. The two had got along well during her 1992 state visit. Diplomats say the ailing, ageing Mr Mitterrand and Ireland's head of state shared a similar cultural and political outlook.

At the French Foreign Ministry yesterday, officials said they would be disappointed to see Mrs Robinson leave office. "She speaks French well," Mr Yves Doutriaux, a spokesman noted. "That is something we are very sensitive to, which goes straight to our heart."

Mrs Robinson, the Taoiseach and Minister for Finance, Mr Quinn, are the only Irish politicians who give interviews in French.

In addition to the successful Imaginaire Irlandais festival, Mrs Robinson engineered "new links between Irish and French business management associations. In her May 1996 visit, just before the Irish EU presidency began, she discussed the Intergovernmental Conference and monetary union with Mr Chirac.

In the mind of the French public, Mrs Robinson represents a new image of Ireland, personified by a politically liberal woman.

That she is always well dressed further endears her to the fashion conscious French. Ireland is often viewed here as a conservative, traditional place, and Mrs Robinson's Presidency dented French preconceptions. Her prominence has been all the more impressive in a country where women are virtually unrepresented in politics.