Chirac's enemies emerge to settle old scores

Posted in Europe | 30-Oct-06 | Author: Elaine Sciolino| Source: International Herald Tribune

In making a trip to China, President Jacques Chirac avoided being in Paris for the unpleasant anniversary of the start of three weeks of unrest in largely immigrant suburbs a year ago. Although Mr. Chirac is very unpopular in France, he retains high ratings for his foreign policy, primarily for his opposition to the Iraq war. On Thursday, he and his wife, Bernadette, met with President Hu Jintao of China and his wife, Liu Yongqing.
PARIS From afar, Jacques Chirac is the embodiment of France. Charming, debonair, skilled in the national art of social discourse, France's president since 1995 seems to be gliding toward retirement and a respectable place in history.

But here at home, he has been under unrelenting, indeed unprecedented, attack, so much so that the newspaper Libération has named "Chiracophobia" as "the new national sport."

The assaults have crescendoed since Chirac suffered what has been called a mild cerebral attack a year ago, focusing on his age, his leadership and his legacy. The newspaper Le Monde described him as "the absent one" and even suggested that he consider resigning.

A TNS Sofres poll this month gave him an approval rating of 24 percent, up from 16 percent last July, but still making him the most unpopular French president since the firm began presidential polling in 1978.

The disillusionment with Chirac is not only personal but also a reflection of the dread among the French public that their nation has lost its glory abroad and its way at home. That feeling was especially acute on the anniversary last week of the brutal unrest that gripped several suburbs a year ago.

Widespread criticism that little has changed to improve the plight of the underclass underscores a larger point: that Chirac's 1995 campaign promises to "mend the social fracture" in France and reduce unemployment, among other things, have been unfulfilled.

The most recent bludgeoning came on two evenings last week, in a four- hour documentary of his political career that was broadcast on France 2 television - the first time an assessment of a sitting president has been shown on public television in prime time.

France's political elite - many of them former friends and colleagues of Chirac - lined up to tell stories about his thirst for power, his betrayals, his opportunism and his policy U-turns that have earned him the nickname "the Weathervane."

"A sort of political Don Juan, more preoccupied with the conquest or the preservation of power than by its execution," said Philippe Séguin, a minister in the 1980s.

A "chevalier of opportunism" who put into place a system of "corruption" in the years he was mayor of Paris, said Raymond Barre, the former prime minister who was part of Chirac's own camp.

Olivier Stirn, a former minister who worked under Chirac in the 1970s, described him even more brutally. "Chirac," he said, "is a killer."

Certainly, Patrick Rotman, the historian who made the television documentary, whose two parts were titled "The Young Wolf" and "The Old Lion," had a lot of material to work with.

Chirac, who turns 74 next month, has held no jobs outside of government. He joined the civil service in the 1950s, was elected to Parliament in 1967 and became a junior minister for the first time later that year. He was prime minister in the 1970s and again in the 1980s.

He is the only sitting politician who has served every Fifth Republic president since Charles de Gaulle. Many French people have never known politics without him.

"Chirac was a wild cat who eliminated everyone in his way to the Élysée," Rotman said. "Now he is rather alone and isolated. It's the tragedy of powerful men who were kings, who gave their lives to win power and at the end of their reign are abandoned."

Rotman's documentary is perhaps the most authoritative but only one of many attempts to write Chirac's political history - and obituary - in the past year. As the end of his political career draws near, the fear of him has receded, and the time to settle scores has come.

In his third volume of memoirs published this month, for example, former President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing accuses Chirac, a fellow politician of the center-right, of a double betrayal in the 1981 presidential election, which brought François Mitterrand, the Socialist leader, to power. Instead of supporting Giscard d'Estaing against Mitterrand, Chirac ran as well. Even worse, Giscard d'Estaing recounts a deathbed conversation in which Mitterrand credits his victory in the second round to secret support from Chirac.

"What motivates him is a fanatical desire to reach the presidency of the Republic," Giscard d'Estaing wrote in the book, already a best seller. "This obsession wipes out everything else - convictions as well as respect for the rules."

In "The Irresponsible," another best seller, Hervé Gattegno, a journalist for Le Monde, accused Chirac of transforming France into an autocracy, using his presidency with "political and judicial irresponsibility, as a debtor without scruples uses his insolvency."

But Chirac is not a politician who can go quietly into the night. The aura of the presidency is too powerful, the adulation of the crowd intoxicating. The French have already looked beyond him, but he is unready to say adieu.

Chirac has refused to announce that he will not run for a third term next spring, saying that he will announce his decision in March. Earlier this month, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin perpetuated the notion that there might be a third term for Chirac, praising his experience and calling the question of his running again "legitimate."

The conventional wisdom is that Chirac plans to retire but refuses to become a lame duck, even though others seem to have made him one already. An IFOP poll this month said that only 2 percent of the French people want him to run again as the ruling, right-wing Union for a Popular Movement candidate in the presidential election next spring.

So for the moment, he is busily doing what he does best - schmoozing, breaking bread with farmers and carrying the French tricolor around the world.