Chirac fights to stem the rising tide of gloom

Speaking to the nation: Reforms of today are building blocks for the France of tomorrow

In a pioneering television broadcast,President Jacques Chirac last night ruled out changing his unpopular prime minister, describing Alain Juppe as "courageously implementing policies that had to be implemented" for the benefit of France.

Implicitly criticising Mr Juppe, however, Mr Chirac acknowledged "communication" had been a signal fault in the two Juppe governments appointed since he took office 18 months ago. The broadcast, Mr Chirac's first since Bastille Day on 14 July, was arranged in response to pressure from Gaullists concerned about the decline in his and the government's popularity.

To viewers, however, the interest of Mr Chirac's appearance, which overran its planned 90 minutes by half an hour, would have been less what he said than what was asked. Perhaps for the first time, a president was asked questions that "the people" wanted to pose but had never dared.

At peak viewing time, Mr Chirac answered questions from five journalists whose sole instruction appeared to have been "Don't be scared, just put the questions". Perhaps for the first time, too, it was the President rather than the journalists who was found wanting. Questioned on everything from high unemployment to policy on Algeria and Corsica, to corruption in the Gaullist party, and the single European currency, Mr Chirac was well- prepared and unfazed. At times, however, he was also unconvincing, dodging insistent questions about the neutrality of the judiciary and the involvement of senior Gaullists in corruption investigations.

He defended his election platform of trying to heal France's social "fractures", insisting the diagnosis and remedies were correct. He also presented himself as personal guarantor of France's "social state", insisting he wanted the creation of permanent, not temporary jobs, the retention of social benefits and the continuation of France's generous welfare state.

In advance, the biggest controversy about the broadcast was that it was allocated to the commercial, more down-market TF1 and that a new format, reportedly advocated by his counsellor, Jacques Pilhan, and his daughter Claude, his adviser on public relations, brought in younger, mostly less established journalists to ask questions.

The result, which blended film to illustrate France's problems and clips from Mr Chirac's presidential campaign with the question-and-answer format, was a lively and iconoclastic mix, which brought a measure of unprecedented glasnost to French television. Had the government approved the press conference by hooded Corsican nationalists in January, as their leader recently claimed? What about the corruption cases involving Gaullist politicians, including the Mayor of Paris? What about the view that Mr Juppe and ministers were all technocrats, remote from the concerns of ordinary people?

The chairman last night was Guillaume Durand, who moderated the television debate on the Maastricht treaty referendum in 1992 to universal acclaim, but he was the only mainstream political journalist taking part. The others, who included a producer of documentaries and the presenter of a popular investigative programme broadcast on Sunday evenings, were not primarily political interviewers.

The new format was intended to make the audience feel it was "their" questions and concerns being addressed rather than those of the distant political caste. The President's ambivalence on certain topics, however, including corruption in public life, relations with Germany on the single European currency, and negotiations with Corsican nationalists, may not have given the French the unqualified assurance they may have expected.

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