Just several months ago, stories were leaked to the French press that French President Jacques Chirac was seriously considering a run for an unprecedented third presidential term in 2007.
Presented as whispers originating in the Elysee Palace where he presides, the leaks were proof of a stunning confidence on the part of Chirac and his advisers about the 72-year-old president's popularity.
Still benefiting from the wide support he garnered through his opposition to the US-led war in Iraq, Chirac's image seemed to be impervious to the effects of rising unemployment, his government's dramatic bumbling of the 2003 killer heat wave and the public's growing anger over reforms of the French pension, unemployment and social-security systems.
This surprised no one. Over four decades in politics, Chirac has always shown proof of an uncanny ability to roll with the blows, the sense to know which way the wind is blowing and a masterly knack of being able to play to the crowds.
But just days before the 10th anniversary of his presidency, Chirac appears to have run out of resilience, intuition and luck.
There has been little talk of a third presidential term lately. In fact, recent whispers were suggesting that if the French were to reject the EU constitutional treaty in their May 29 referendum, Chirac may not even serve out his second term.
Hearing the whispers, Chirac flatly declared that he would not step down if the constitution is voted down.
However, a defeat in this crucial vote would make him the most lame duck of presidents and leave historians, and his own supporters, wondering what he accomplished in a decade at the head of one of Europe's most powerful states.
Certainly, his electorate is beginning to wonder.
An uncomfortable feature of political anniversaries is that they provide a fitting occasion to draw up a balance sheet of accomplishments and failures.
The French have begun doing that, and the results look discouraging for Chirac. A poll published on Monday in the pro-Chirac daily Le Figaro revealed that less than one-third of the French are satisfied with Chirac's accomplishments in office.
In the poll, respondents criticized Chirac's policies on social services and the economy and said he had failed in the fight against discrimination and to bring morality to politics.
The anniversary comes at a particularly difficult time for the president, with unemployment at 10.2 percent, the highest level in five years, and French job security threatened by outsourcing and a stuttering economy.
In addition, racist violence is on the rise and the government appears to have no coherent policy on integrating its 5 million Muslims or for regulating immigration.
Elected to his second term with 82 percent of the vote, Chirac could boast of a true mandate, and might have put that mandate to good use at home.
He chose instead the Gaullist policy of flexing France's muscles on the international stage, leading the opposition to the US-led war in Iraq, and let Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin run the country.
But his neglect of domestic issues and Raffarin's growing unpopularity led to a string of punishing election losses to the opposition Socialists, and made the usually glib and self-assured president appear unsure and tired.
Almost directly linked to Chirac's decline was the emergence of a formidable rival within his own camp: former interior and finance minister Nicolas Sarkozy.
Sarkozy's youthfulness, brash style and bold ideas, as well as his ability to use the media to his advantage, have turned him into the most popular politician in the country and made Chirac look like an aging politician from a bygone era.
In a particularly stinging setback for the president, Sarkozy skillfully took over leadership of a party created specifically for Chirac, the Union for a Popular Majority (UMP), and is now using it to pursue his own presidential ambitions.
If a primary were held today to determine the UMP's candidate for the 2007 presidency, there is little doubt that Chirac would lose by a wide margin.
This lends the May 29 referendum on the EU constitution a personal dimension, for it could be Chirac's last chance to polish his legacy. It could also be his last hurrah.
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