French President Jacques Chirac is in the hospital recovering from what doctors describe as a minor condition affecting his sight, but the French are already writing his political epitaph.
Though he has two years left in his term and has left open the possibility that he might run again, the media, political opponents and even his most loyal allies are acting as if he is already gone.
"Strictly speaking, nothing has happened," read an editorial in the conservative daily Le Figaro. "But everyone feels somehow that something has tipped over."
Chirac, 72, was rushed to the hospital late on Saturday with a severe headache and blurred vision.
On Monday a bulletin from a military doctor said that Chirac had suffered a small-sized hematoma, or bruise, indicating an "isolated and limited vision problem."
The location of the bruise was not immediately clear in the announcement -- the most detailed since the president was taken to Val de Grace military hospital in Paris on Friday.
Chirac is expected to remain in the hospital all week.
His absence has not alarmed the French, many of whom have considered him a has-been since his resounding defeat in his campaign for ratification of Europe's draft constitution through a national referendum in May. It has, however, excited French journalists, who filled the nation's newspapers with pitiless analysis of Chirac's political impotence and speculation.
"Now people say he's not only unpopular, but he's aging, he's irrelevant," said Pascal Perrineau, director of the Study Center of French Political Life. "It reinforces all of the questions in France about Chirac's leadership."
The business daily Les Echos said a third term for the president, already in question, "became even more improbable this weekend."
He became ill as his party, the Union for a Popular Movement, met in the Atlantic resort of La Baule for its annual end-of-summer convention. Leading contenders for his job, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, leapt into the breach.
Villepin, Chirac's protege, cast himself as a man of "change in continuity," while Sarkozy, Chirac's nemesis, called for a "rupture with the past." The left-wing daily Liberation ran a front-page cartoon of Villepin and Sarkozy as vultures on the railing of Chirac's sickbed.
The event has been particularly invigorating for Villepin, who had been constrained from openly campaigning for the presidency by Chirac's own ambiguity about whether he would run for a third term. That had left the field open for the nakedly ambitious Sarkozy. But no longer.
"Until Saturday evening, Dominique de Villepin had the status of prime minister," said a commentator on the French television station LCI. "Since Sunday morning, he is in the role of heir."
Sarkozy has worked aggressively to position himself as the party's presidential candidate in 2007. Chirac forced Sarkozy out of the government last year when Sarkozy took over leadership of the party, but asked him back after the referendum failed. Chirac was deeply wounded by the referendum, which was largely seen as a plebiscite on his troubled administration.
He has long preferred to leave running the country to the prime minister and Cabinet, focusing instead on foreign policy. But even in that arena he has been relatively inactive aftera disastrous summit meeting of EU leaders in June.
Chirac had been known for his robust health, but he has never released his medical records.
French Foreign Minister Philippe Douste-Blazy said on Monday that Chirac was "very well" and insisted that the government was hiding nothing about his condition. But government cover-ups of presidential ailments in the past have made the public wary. Former president Francois Mitterrand suffered for years from prostate and bone cancer without telling the public. Before him, president Georges Pompidou hid his cancer and died in office in 1974.
Under the French Constitution, if Chirac were to die in office, Senate president Christian Poncelet, would take his place until presidential elections could be held.
Liberation suggested that Chirac step down now to spare the country a power struggle it compared to the family rivalries in the 1980s US television series Dallas.
"But Jacques Chirac is not the kind to give up one second, one crumb of power," it wrote. "So we're heading for 20 months of Dallas in Chirac-Land."
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