Friday, July 15, 2005

As Chirac Fades, Squabbling Begins

After suffering a humiliating loss of face when French voters overwhelmingly rejected the proposed European Union constitution that he strongly backed, French President Jacques Chirac's political fortunes have nosedived. As Mr. Chirac's popularity has sunk to new lows, other French politicians are vying to replace him. The political feeding frenzy at the highest levels of Paris government became clear yesterday when Mr. Chirac's most vehement foe, Nicolas Sarkozy publiclly ridiculed Mr. Chirac's Bastille Day speech ... before it was given.

Growing tension - even loathing - between President Jacques Chirac and his interior minister and would-be successor, Nicolas Sarkozy, burst into the open yesterday.

In private comments leaked to the press, M Sarkozy ridiculed in advance President Chirac's traditional Bastille Day "state of the nation" television appearance this morning. There was "no real point" this year in the President's tame 14 July interview with leading television news anchors, M Sarkozy told a meeting of ministers.

The President should only speak "when he has something to say ... why persist with this tradition when there is nothing new and the French are already thinking about their holidays?"

Mr. Chirac's supporters denied the President's irrelevance.

The Prime Minister, and Chirac loyalist, Dominique de Villepin, reportedly told the ministerial breakfast meeting that the President would have "important" comments to make on "all subjects". According to accounts given by other ministers present, an "agitated" M. Sarkozy retorted: "Perhaps he imagines that he is the only person with a right to speak."
As it would happen, Mr. Chirac's Bastille Day address did in fact contain some very, very important observations. He criticized Britain for having less unemployment than France.

“Certainly, their unemployment is lower than ours. But if you take the big elements in society — health policy, the fight against poverty, . . . spending involving the future — you notice that we are much, much better placed than the English.”

M Chirac said that France spent 5.6 per cent of its annual income on education, compared with Britain’s 4.2 per cent. Later, citing Britain unprompted, he noted that 7 per cent of French children lived in poverty compared with 17 per cent in Britain.

He also insisted that he would “not make the least concession” to Mr Blair in his campaign to reform EU farm spending and would fight his attempts to open Europe’s service market to competition. Although polls show that M Chirac, 72, is trusted by only 25 per cent of the public, he refused to rule out running for a third term in 2007.

The President’s chief goal in his 45-minute state-of-the- nation chat was to persuade a dubious French public that he has the ability to respond to an economic crisis that is fuelled by a decade of 10 per cent unemployment. But France remembers that in his first Bastille Day appearance in 1995 he promised a “great campaign to curb unemployment”.

The Socialist Opposition said that he appeared “laborious, self-contradictory and on the defensive” during his broadcast. The Greens said that the President had shown himself “completely out of touch with the discontent of the French people”.

Mr. Sarkozy has positioned himself as an iconoclastic alternative to the comatose pro-Brussels, Eurosocialist policies of Mr. Chirac and de Villepin (Mr. Chirac's closest ally).

In a speech last weekend, M Sarkozy said it was time for France to engage in a "critical self-examination". He also suggested the country needed its politicians to show the same courage as "Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair in Britain" and make unpopular decisions for the good of the nation.

France's high-tax, large state, high job security "social model" - defended by M. Chirac from implied criticism by Mr Blair - has proved a failure in the past 20 years, M. Sarkozy said.

The Interior Minister - who likes to criss-cross between traditional "right-wing" and "left-wing" issues - has also called again for a policy of positive discrimination towards ethnic minorities, an idea rejected by M. Chirac and M. de Villepin.

Unfortunately, for those hoping to set France back on a productive and stable course, opinion polls consistently show the French people stronly supportive of the socialist economic policies that have put their economy squarely in a prolonged decline and driven innovation and creativity away from France.


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