Coy Chirac keeps 71st birthday low-key

1st December 2003, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, Dec 1 (AFP) - Aides and supporters of French President Jacques Chirac on Monday offered him warm wishes for his 71st birthday but the head of state was careful to keep news of his advancing age out of the public eye.

PARIS, Dec 1 (AFP) - Aides and supporters of French President Jacques Chirac on Monday offered him warm wishes for his 71st birthday but the head of state was careful to keep news of his advancing age out of the public eye.

Chirac took another step into his eighth decade on Saturday, confirming his place as Europe's oldest statesman, well ahead of the runners-up - Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, 67, and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, 59.

But rather than mark the occasion with fanfare, the French leader has been circumspect, allowing his cabinet to fete him only with a low-key, informal lunch on Monday. His office made no mention of the birthday and it was overlooked by virtually all the French press.

A large part of the discretion came from Chirac's apparent desire to be seen as a dynamic president still riding high on the worldwide popularity his stand against the US war on Iraq brought him, and with the energy to maintain France's place on the international stage.

Any suggestion of age or weakness - raised by rivals in elections last year before being quashed in his re-election victory - is vigorously put down and his image carefully managed.

Thus Chirac reportedly wears contacts, dyes his hair and keeps up a healthy looking tan. His height and dapper suits do the rest.

A recent revelation - backed up by photographs - that he wears a nearly invisible hearing aid in his right ear was initially denied by his office and now is simply not talked about.

The president has also kept up an impressive travel schedule. Last week he was in London for a Franco-British summit with Prime Minister Tony Blair.
Before that he visited Mali, Niger, Morocco, the United Nations headquarters in New York, Malaysia, Russia, Algeria and a number of European countries.

The leader of the Socialist opposition, Francois Hollande, declined to capitalise on Chirac's age on Sunday, telling Forum Radio J: "The problem isn't his physical state, which seems pretty good, but more the state of his policies, which seem pretty poor."

Chirac has kept domestic politicking to a minimum, leaving that to his centre-right government and in particular to embattled Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, whose poll ratings have slumped so badly that there is speculation he might be fired next year.

But such distance from the fray has allowed the biggest threat to a possible third mandate for Chirac to grow in the form of Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who is popular, ambitious - and only 48.

Although he outwardly bows to Chirac, Sarkozy has made it clear he intends to be in the race in the 2007 presidential election.

Asked whether he thought about becoming head of state when he shaves every morning, he recently told a television interviewer: "Not only when I shave." He also suggested that French presidential mandates be limited to just two terms, as in the United States, rather than the open-ended system currently in force.

Chirac has not said whether he plans to run again, though his wife Bernadette has repeatedly told journalists that is an option.

In any case, Chirac - who started his political career in 1962 as a junior aide in Charles de Gaulle's government - has had an extraordinarily fortuitous run.

He has managed to dodge questioning over corruption scandals that have dogged him from his time at Paris mayor on the grounds that he has immunity while in office.

His re-election last year owed more to the public backlash against the surprise arrival of far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen in the poll run-off than his own support -- which stood at 19 percent in the first round.

And then came Iraq, with Chirac's hesitation crystallising into hardnosed resistance to US President George W. Bush's push to war as international public opinion showed itself to be overwhelmingly against a US invasion.

Since then, his domestic popularity has hovered above 50 percent. That's a good score for a president well into his second term. But Chirac has reason to avoid complacency - Sarkozy trumps him with a rating of 64 percent.


                                                                Subject: French news

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