Mimi Marchand: From nightclub boss to Macron advisor
Nightclubs, paparazzi photos and several spells behind bars: Michele Marchand, better known as Mimi, has carved an unusual route to a role advising French President Emmanuel Macron and his wife Brigitte.
Better known as the queen of France's gossip magazines, Marchand's other job -- helping to shape the Macrons' image -- has been thrown into an unwelcome spotlight with the publication of an unauthorised biography, "Mimi".
If the shrewd 71-year-old's exact role at the Elysee Palace remains unclear, newspapers have delighted in filling the gaps with colourful metaphors.
Spain's El Pais daily dubbed the blonde, gravel-voiced advisor "the Rasputin of the Elysee", while Le Monde called her "the cat among Macron's pigeons".
What's clear is that Marchand, officially part of the liaison committee organising Macron's media coverage, stands apart from the elite university graduates who dominate French politics.
Few in the corridors of power have run auto-repair shops or had repeated run-ins with the law due to unsavoury boyfriends.
"She's done everything," wrote "Mimi" authors Jean-Michel Decugis, Marc Leplongeon and Pauline Guena.
Born into a working-class family in the Paris suburbs, Marchand married the boss of a Paris car-repair garage in the 1970s after a trip to get her car fixed.
Open around the clock, the garage was a favourite among shady characters of the Paris underworld.
By the 1980s Marchand was running a different "Garage" -- the name of a Paris nightclub -- before going on to manage others including Le Cirque, a gay club and popular celebrity haunt.
"She was really able to form genuine friendships with the stars," said an old acquaintance, declining to be identified by name.
With her unbeatable contacts, Marchand moved seamlessly from running nightclubs to working for celebrity gossip magazines.
The weekly Voici handed her a job in 1995 and she quickly became a reliable source of scoops on Monaco's royals as well as French stars like Gerard Depardieu and Johnny Hallyday.
She would go on to sell salacious tittle-tattle on actors, reality TV starlets and athletes to other titles including Paris Match and Closer.
"99.9 percent of celebrity stories come from her," an industry source said.
According to the authors of "Mimi", Marchand's stories were "sometimes true, often false".
"There was one rule: keep it more or less plausible," they wrote.
- Gangster boyfriends -
Marchand is known for her sharp wits and an ability to get where she wants, but has nonetheless experienced some setbacks.
She racked up a string of suspended prison sentences in the 1980s and spent two years behind bars awaiting trial over her involvement with a gangster boyfriend identified in her biography as "Hafed", though she was not convicted.
In 1998 she was handed another three-year suspended sentence over another former boyfriend's cannabis-dealing operation.
Yet every time she bounced back.
In 2010 Marchand bought Angeli, one of France's biggest paparazzi agencies, and renamed it Bestimage.
It was here that she sealed a reputation for breaking a long-held rule of French politics.
Before Marchand came along, a politician's private life was sacred.
But she had no qualms about selling pictures of Socialist presidential candidate Segolene Royal on the beach, or rightwinger Nicolas Sarkozy out on a date.
"She is responsible for the celebrification of politics," ex-president Francois Hollande -- whose own affair with actress Julie Gayet was revealed by a gossip magazine in 2014 -- told the authors of "Mimi".
An industry source said Marchand became an expert at staging paparazzi shots, pre-arranged with their attention-hungry subjects.
"She managed to angle the stories the way she wanted. She was able to control things," the source said.
- Staged Macron photoshoot -
Marchand met Brigitte Macron through the telecoms billionaire Xavier Niel in early 2016, at a crucial point in the presidential campaign.
Damaging rumours had begun surfacing that Macron, 25 years' Brigitte's junior, was secretly gay.
In August that year, under Marchand's guidance, the couple were snapped walking along a beach, hand in hand and smiling, Brigitte in a floral swimsuit.
The apparently spontaneous moment had in fact been carefully executed by Marchand.
While Marchand remains on the president's communications liaison committee, reports say the Macrons have distanced themselves from her of late.
"Six months or a year ago the Elysee gave her lots of access. Today she has no more privileged access than any of the other members," a fellow committee member said.
Marchand declined to comment when approached by AFP, as did Macron's office.
Yet Decugis, one of the biography's authors, says she remains involved in oiling the Macron communication machine.
© 2018 AFP