Is the president of France hard of hearing? And does he wear a hearing aid?
The French want to know.
"The affair of the presidential ears reaches astonishing proportions without gaining in clarity," Le Monde declares in a front-page article in Friday's issue.
What President Jacques Chirac does and does not hear has been a matter of speculation (private of course, this is France) for a decade. Some of his closest aides have whispered that Chirac, who turns 71 later this month, has been challenged auditorily in noisy rooms for as long as they can remember.
The rumors surfaced publicly this month when the newsweekly L'Express cited a senior French official as saying that Chirac wore a discreet plastic hearing device in his left ear.
But it took Roselyne Bachelot, the ecology minister, who is well known for her political tin ear, to break the silence.
At the end of a short interview on the environment with RTL radio on Wednesday, she was bluntly asked, "Do you, Roselyne Bachelot, confirm that the president of the republic, who you are going to see in an hour, has a hearing aid?"
She replied, "It seems to me, yes."
"Ah, yes, that's an excellent answer!" the reporter exclaimed.
That brought a swift denial from a government spokesman, Jean-Francois Cope, who told a press briefing after the weekly Council of Ministers meeting later that day, "Of course he doesn't wear one."
Culture Minister Jean-Jacques Aillagon does not want to know who is right, saying: "It's none of my business, and I would not allow myself to make such derogatory observations. There are really more serious things in life."
But Adrien Pelletier, the 39-year-old head of the National Federation of Deaf People, is delighted. "Mr. Chirac, welcome to the world of deaf people!" he said, offering to give the president sign language lessons.
But Maurice Leroy, a center-right member of parliament from Loir-et-Cher quoted in Liberation, a left-leaning daily, on Thursday, called Cope's denial "worthy of Pravda" and "worse than Bachelot's announcement."
During a television interview on Bastille Day last July, Chirac apparently misheard a question about Education Minister Luc Ferry and began talking about Jules Ferry, a 19th-century prime minister.
"Should the head of state tell all, at the risk of seeing the slightest fever turn into a psychodrama?" the article in L'Express asked. "Or should he hide everything and turn the subject over to the rumor mill?"
It turns out that Chirac was sufficiently concerned about his hearing problem that several times earlier this year he turned up at work wearing a hearing aid, according to one of his closest aides.
"Some of us noticed it," the aide said. "But he didn't like it and doesn't want to wear it and doesn't wear it now."