Mon, Oct 30, 2006 - Page 6 News List

`Chiracophobia' becoming a national sport


From afar, President 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 Liberation 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 president since the company 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 is 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 country's 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 aired 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 Seguin, 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.

Chirac 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 Elysee," 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 said.

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