President Jacques Chirac bows out of French politics

12th March 2007, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, March 12, 2007 (AFP) - President Jacques Chirac Sunday announced his decision to bow out of French politics, sparking debate over his legacy, while stopping short of anointing a successor in next month's presidential election.

PARIS, March 12, 2007 (AFP) - President Jacques Chirac Sunday announced his decision to bow out of French politics, sparking debate over his legacy, while stopping short of anointing a successor in next month's presidential election.

Chirac's departure, at age 74, ends a four-decade career including 12 years as head of state, marking the end of an era in France as younger rivals on the left and right battle it out to take over.

In an emotional televised address the veteran leader, who spearheaded worldwide opposition to the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, said he would stand down in May but would continue to seek to serve his country.

"I will not ask for your votes for a new mandate," he said. "In a different manner, but with the same enthusiasm and passion to act on your behalf, I shall continue to fight our battles -- the battles I have fought all my life -- for justice, progress, peace and the grandeur of France," he said.

Chirac held his first post in government in 1962. He spent 18 years as mayor of Paris, was twice prime minister, and was elected president in 1995.

In 2002 he won re-election with the support of left-wing voters anxious to keep out far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who stunned the country by qualifying for the second round.

The following year Chirac led opposition to the US-led war on Iraq, earning acclaim in many parts of the world and igniting a bitter diplomatic quarrel with US President George W. Bush.

But his fortunes tumbled in 2005, when France rejected the EU's proposed constitution, riots hit the city suburbs, and he was hospitalised following a "vascular incident."

In his address Chirac said he was "proud of the work which we have carried out together" -- citing improvements for the elderly and handicapped, reforms of the pension system and reductions in crime and unemployment.

While French newspapers broadly praised Chirac's defence of French interests abroad despite his failings on the economy -- most of the European press was scathing.

"Convention demands that we say nice things about people when they retire but, in the case of Jacques Chirac, it is not easy," said Britain's right-wing Daily Telegraph.

Accusing Chirac of flip-flopping on big issues, the left-of-centre Guardian branded him a "weathervane" and the Financial Times "an eternal opportunist", while Spain's right-wing El Mundo recalled his "changes of heart and legendary gaffes".

"What did this man do with the chances he had? Very little," asked Germany's left-leaning Berliner Zeitung, saying he was leaving France "in the state it was in when he came to power in 1995."

France's political class, in spite of the misgivings about Chirac's legacy, was more generous in its praise of the statesman.

Right-wing presidential candidate and interior minister Nicolas Sarkozy paid tribute to his one-time mentor turned political rival -- even though Chirac gave no sign on Sunday of whether he plans to endorse Sarkozy's election bid.

"Jacques Chirac was dignified, sincere," Sarkozy told French radio, hailing the president's "extraordinary energy" and "ability to overcome challenges".

But when asked if he saw himself as Chirac's natural successor, Sarkozy -- -- who has pledged to break with Chirac's past policies if elected -- replied: "Deep down, I have never felt like anybody's heir."

Sarkozy, 52, narrowly leads the race to succeed Chirac over socialist Segolene Royal but faces a new challenge from the centrist candidate Francois Bayrou, head of the Union for French Democracy (UDF).

Royal described Chirac's departure as "a historic moment because a page of history is about to turn. A new page is about to open and the French themselves are going to write it."

Bayrou -- who served as education minister under Chirac -- acknowledged past confrontations but added: "on foreign policy he was an honorable voice, and a great voice at the moments when France needed one".

But the right-wing firebrand Le Pen -- who polls fourth in the race to succeed Chirac -- hailed the departure of his "worst enemy". He slammed Chirac as "the worst president in the history of France" and a "symbol of political corruption" in reference to scandals dating back to his time as mayor of Paris.

Chirac appealed to French voters on Sunday to shun Le Pen in the April-May election, urging them to "have no truck with extremism, racism, anti-Semitism or the rejection of others."

Overseas, despite the French-US rift over Iraq, Bush was among the first to send a message of good will. "President Bush wishes President Chirac all the best as he enters life after politics," the White House said.

In Japan -- where Chirac has travelled some 50 times, developing a taste for sumo wrestling and Japanese art, the government said it hoped Chirac would keep "contributing to the good relationship between Japan and France".

Chirac will officially stand down on May 16, when his mandate expires and has indicated he would like to chair an international foundation, promoting causes close to his heart such as the environment and non-European cultures.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news, President Jacques Chirac

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