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Departing Aznar swipes at Chirac

PARIS, March 8 (AFP) – Spanish Prime Minister Jose Maria Aznar, who retires at the age of 51 after Sunday’s elections, made an ill-concealed jibe at President Jacques Chirac Monday, suggesting that the French leader lacks political conviction and should know when to stand down.

In a highly personal interview in the Paris daily Le Monde, Aznar – who has been in power for eight years – was asked whether he minded being criticised in the past for not being likeable enough.

“The leaders we need are people with ideas and convictions. As for likeability – what nonsense! There is nothing worse than a likeable leader who is bad at government,” he answered.

Asked if he was thinking of Chirac,” he went on: “Jacques Chirac is a very likeable head of state, and one with lots of experience.”

“To govern a country there are two indispensible conditions: a capacity for decision and conviction. You cannot let yourself be influenced by the wind that blows or bob like a cork with the tide.

“No matter how strong the wind or the tide, those who follow them are not leaders but weather-vanes,” he said in the interview.

A long-standing criticism of Chirac from his political opponents is that he has bowed to successive, and opposing, political trends during his long career.

Earlier in the interview Aznar explained why he was stepping down at a time when his Partido Popular (PP) looks set for a third election victory.

“As with everything in this life, power should have its day. Dragging it out brings more problems than advantages,” he said.

Chirac, who is 71, entered politics in the early 1960s and served twice as prime minister before becoming French president in 1995. He is now considering running for a third mandate as president in 2007.

The two men have been frequent partners at European gatherings but despite their nominally common position on the centre-right of politics their relations have been strained.

Chirac has not approved Aznar’s alignment with the liberal economic policies of Britain’s Tony Blair, his support for the US-led war against Iraq, nor his opposition to Franco-German domination of the European Union.

Pointedly Aznar did not invite Chirac to his daughter’s wedding in 2002.

Speaking to Le Monde, Aznar launched a bitter attack on the “social-democrat consensus” of the Franco-German tandem which he said had been of no use to Europe.

“If you look at European and US economic data for the last 20 years, you can see very clearly how Europe has lost influence …. A social model that produces millions of unemployed is nothing to boast about,” he said.

“You cannot complain all the time about the American system and at the same time have less growth, be less flexible, less competitive and create fewer jobs than they do. Let us stop complaining and start improving,” the prime minister said.

Asked about France’s cherished “cultural exception” – its insistence that its language and film industry be protected under world trade rules – Aznar said he could not understand how in a globalised world anyone could think it was worthwhile.

“The richest periods in literature, music and science were never stimulated by cultural exceptionalism but by an environment that was open to the world,” he said.

Aznar, who made the PP the first electable party of the right in Spain after the fall of the dictator Francisco Franco, is more widely admired among younger members of Chirac’s Union for a Popular Movement party (UMP) whose founding congress he attended in 2002.

Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin, who comes from the liberal wing of the UMP, has often praised Spain’s economic policies, and in January Aznar decorated Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy with the country’s highest civilian medal for his role in combatting attacks by armed Basque nationalists.

Asked if other European leaders had been surprised by his decision to step down at such a young age, Aznar replied: “All of them! Some thought that when it came to the crunch I would change my mind, and now they are even more surprised!”


                                                              Subject: France news