Chirac turns 73; would-be successors eye top job

28th November 2005, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Nov 29 (AFP) - President Jacques Chirac turned 73 Tuesday amid signs that his authority at home and abroad was eroding and as a struggle to succeed him was heating up between prime minister Dominique de Villepin and interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

PARIS, Nov 29 (AFP) - President Jacques Chirac turned 73 Tuesday amid signs that his authority at home and abroad was eroding and as a struggle to succeed him was heating up between prime minister Dominique de Villepin and interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

As in previous years, Chirac celebrated his birthday discreetly, taking no time out of his schedule for a party and accepting the wishes of family and aides in private.

"It is not a political event, it's a personal event," Philippe Bas, one of Chirac's former chiefs of staff who is now a junior minister for social security, told Canal Plus television.

The president himself -- who counts as one of the world's oldest leaders -- has brushed aside questions about whether his age was starting to show.

He told journalists at the end of a Euro-Mediterranean summit in Barcelona on Monday that "on the weight of the years, I'll leave it to you to judge, it's not for me to do so," adding that he was too busy to give his advancing age much thought.

This year has not been kind to the French head of state, however.

The public viewed him as out of touch and lacking his once famous dynamism during the three weeks of riots that exploded on the impoverished outskirts of cities and towns earlier this month.

A week-long hospitalisation for what has been described as a "vascular incident" has tarnished his former image a hearty and hale bon vivant with energy to spare.

The rejection of a May referendum he sponsored for the adoption of a European constitution dealt a bad blow to his prestige, which he had staked on a 'yes' vote.

And his repeated promises to cut chronically high unemployment, fight world poverty and restore some of France's faded grandeur have made little impact.

Chirac, who has already ruled for a decade, has not said whether he will stand for a third mandate in 2007 elections, but the consensus is that that is unlikely.

"In a year, it will be all finished for him," the left-leaning newspaper Libération said.

"It is a failed presidency," a leading member of the Socialist Party, one-time prime minister Laurent Fabius told RTL radio. "After 10 years, with such a poor record, there is little chance, little risk that he will stand."

Already, the polls are not kind. A survey by the CSA institute published last weekend found that 72 percent of the respondants thought Chirac's influence over what happens in France was "weak". Two-thirds felt his clout internationally was similarly feeble.

Le Parisien, which printed the survey, said "the end of his reign looks to be difficult for a weakened president."

It was not always thus. In his early days, Chirac earned the nickname "le bulldozer" for his pragmatic ways while adhering to a de Gaullist brand of conservatism.

He also won admiration around the world for standing up to the United States when it tried -- and failed -- to get UN backing for the invasion of Iraq to counter the threat of alleged weapons of mass destruction.

But with his fortunes now flagging, his attention, and that of France, is turning to who might replace him.

Chirac's chosen heir, Villepin, 52, would appear to have a good chance. His eloquence, tanned good looks and solid popularity all augur well for him to take a stab at the presidency.

But he faces a major handicap -- he has never been elected -- and a formidable rival in the form of Sarkozy, an ambitious 50-year-old fond of US-style politicking who grabbed control of Chirac's ruling UMP party a year ago.

Sarkozy has risen to the top of the popularity surveys despite Chirac's best efforts to undercut him, and his tough stance during the riots earned him widespread support even as it nettled the youths responsible for the unrest.

Monday, he told the 70-strong UMP executive board that "the presidential election won't be won on the economy" but by giving a full commitment to that goal.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

 

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