Chirac to turn 74 but keeps his options open

27th November 2006, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Nov 27, 2006 (AFP) - As French President Jacques Chirac prepares to turn 74 Wednesday, his efforts to leave behind a grand legacy are being overshadowed by the fierce battle to succeed him in elections due next April.

PARIS, Nov 27, 2006 (AFP) - As French President Jacques Chirac prepares to turn 74 Wednesday, his efforts to leave behind a grand legacy are being overshadowed by the fierce battle to succeed him in elections due next April.

The birthday anniversary — widely expected to be the last one Chirac celebrates while in the Elysée palace — is not to be marked in any way, according to aides.

That is in part because Chirac will be busy with other leaders at a NATO summit in Latvia on Tuesday and Wednesday.

But it is also in keeping with his aversion to calling attention to his advanced age — especially now that he is striving to keep France guessing as to whether he will seek a third mandate.

The prospect of him standing again is considered remote. His once legendary robust health is failing — he suffered a minor stroke in September 2005 and has taken pains to hide the fact he is becoming hard of hearing — and his popularity has waned to a point that only 36 percent of the country support him, according to the latest Ifop poll.

The suburban riots that gripped France last year and Chirac's failure to win a referendum on an EU constitution have weakened his authority.

Yet he is keeping his options open, saying he will announce whether he will retire or go for re-election early next year.

Reports say that has much to do with his loathing of Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy — the leader of Chirac's ruling conservative party who has positioned himself as his successor while pouring scorn on Chirac's decade in power.

Sarkozy, 51, has been deliberately hobbled by Chirac, who has pushed forward allies Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and Defence Minister Michèle Alliot-Marie as possible challengers to his party's nomination.

But Sarkozy is also the right's best chance of holding on to power. Although the minister has become a highly polarising figure with his hardline stands on law and order and immigration, he nonetheless far outstrips all other conservative politicians in popularity.

Indeed, current polls make him the only challenger able to derail the presidential campaign bid of Ségolène Royal, 53, the opposition Socialist Party female candidate who is seen as the frontrunner for the Elysée.

Speculation is rife in Paris political circles that Chirac is willing to do anything to prevent Sarkozy taking over his job, even to the point of seeing Royal win the April-May presidential elections.

At stake, the thinking goes, is Chirac's place in the history books. That he wants to be remembered as the statesman who was "right" to oppose the invasion of Iraq, that he has championed efforts to fight African poverty, that he secured France's place at the heart of the European Union.

Sarkozy, who has promised a "clean break" with the policies and style defined by Chirac, threatens to wipe away that image with his focus on economic liberalism and social reforms.

What remains to be seen is how much power Chirac still holds in order to influence developments in the remaining five months of his presidency.

Already he has been written off by much of the press and many observers as a lame duck. But a few see him with a last trick up his sleeve.

Dominique Reynie, a political science professor, said: "There's a feeling the president is angling for a comeback, and not only — as first thought — just because he wanted to stay in the game until the end."

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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