After 40 years in French politics, Chirac to retire

Posted in Europe | 12-Mar-07 | Author: Elaine Sciolino| Source: International Herald Tribune

President Jacques Chirac of France said he would not seek a third term in next month's election.

PARIS: After more than four decades as a politician and a dozen years as president, Jacques Chirac announced his retirement from politics on Sunday, but he did not endorse Nicolas Sarkozy, the presidential candidate and leader of the party Chirac founded.

In a brief and deeply personal address to the nation carried on television and radio, Chirac said he would not seek a third term in next month's election.

"At the end of the mandate you have conferred on me, the moment will have come for me to serve you in another way," Chirac said. "I will not ask for your votes for a new mandate."

Chirac's message was one of farewell, not of politics. He looked better than he had for some time. He said of France, "I love it passionately." He told the French people, "Not for one instant have you ceased to inhabit my heart and my mind."

He listed what he considered to be the achievements of his tenure, saying, "I am proud of the work that we have accomplished together." The only regret he expressed was a desire to "have swept away more conservatism and selfishness in order to respond more quickly to some of your difficulties."

He ended his speech, as he always does, with the words, "Long live the republic! Long live France!"

Chirac's announcement about his own career was not a surprise. But he said nothing about the legacy or the future of the governing Union for a Popular Movement party that he founded, and he did not endorse a candidate for the election that is only six weeks away. It remains unclear if he will endorse any candidate.

"As far as the electoral deadlines are concerned, I will have the chance to express my personal choices," he said, without elaborating.

Despite a party that binds them, Chirac and Sarkozy, who is also the interior minister, have long had a strained relationship. Over the past few years, neither has curbed criticism of the other.

Still, polls indicate that Chirac's endorsement of Sarkozy would be a plus for his candidacy.

In an interview published Sunday in Le Journal du Dimanche, a weekly newspaper, Sarkozy said he would welcome Chirac's support.

"If he should give me his support, this would be a politically important event," Sarkozy said.

But Sarkozy, who has sought to distance himself from Chirac, also underlined his differences with him, saying that if elected, "I'll be in politics in a different way." He added, "I am different from Jacques Chirac."

Chirac, 74, began his political career in 1962 as an adviser to Georges Pompidou, then the prime minister, and was elected for the first time as a member of Parliament from Corrèze in central France 40 years ago on Monday. He has held elective office ever since. He has been prime minister twice and served as mayor of Paris for 18 years.

Praised and vilified during his presidency, Chirac will leave office with a mixed legacy.

He will probably be best remembered by historians as the European leader who led the opposition to the American-led war in Iraq in 2003. He was the first French leader to acknowledge the guilt of the French state in the Nazi extermination of Jews in World War II. He pushed through reforms of the health care and pension systems and abolished compulsory military service.

But his dissolution of Parliament in 1997 led to an unwieldy and unworkable division of power with the Socialist Party known as cohabitation.

His popularity plummeted in 2005, when the French people rejected the European Union's proposed constitution in a referendum, the country's troubled ethnic Arab and African Muslim immigrant communities were gripped by unrest and he suffered what has been called a "vascular incident" that was widely believed to have been a slight stroke.

He will leave office failing to fulfill his promise in 1995 to end the "social fracture" between the haves and the have-nots; he leaves France little better off economically than when he took office in 1995. The unemployment rate remains 9 percent; economic growth is at 2 percent.

Chirac's announcement comes as the campaign continues to surprise.

An opinion poll by the IFOP polling institute published Sunday put François Bayrou, the leader of the tiny centrist Union for French Democracy party, at the same level with Ségolène Royal, the Socialist Party candidate, for the first time, both with 23 percent. Sarkozy remained in first place with 28 percent. The two front-runners from the first round of voting on April 22 will compete in a runoff on May 6.

Recent polls indicate that Bayrou, a farmer, member of Parliament and historian from southwestern France who served as Chirac's education minister from 1995 to 1997, would beat either Sarkozy or Royal.

Public opinion polls in France use quota samples instead of probability samples, therefore a margin of sampling error cannot be calculated. The IFOP survey was conducted by telephone with 881 registered voters.

It is not yet known whether Jean-Marie Le Pen, leader of the ultraright National Front, will be a candidate. He insists that he still does not have the necessary 500 signatures from locally elected officials needed to sponsor him. Le Pen, who stunned France when he came in second ahead of the Socialist candidate in the first round of the 2002 election, is expected to win about 13 percent of the vote in the first round this time if he is a candidate.

But a number of officials who supported Le Pen's candidacy in 2002 were criticized after he made it to the second round and have been reluctant to endorse him again this time.

March 16 is the deadline for candidates to submit the list of their supporters.

Reacting on French television to Chirac's address, Le Pen called him "the worst president of the republic in the history of France" and "the symbol of political corruption."

He added, "My God, may God forgive him."

Protected by presidential immunity, Chirac has avoided prosecution on corruption charges that have been brought against some of his closest associates. In principle, he could be prosecuted by investigating judges after he leaves office.