Chirac honours Johnny and forgives France and honours rockers

President Jacques Chirac may have no pressing need to court the voters - parliamentary elections are more than a year away and his own job is safe for five years - but the message of his new year address to the nation and his new year's honours list could have come from the same school of seasonal PR as John Major's. Tell the punters what they want to hear, the advice seems to have been, and give them plenty of what we know they like.

The result in Mr Chirac's case was some extravagant stroking of the Frenchman's delicate ego and a congregation of new and promoted members of the Legion D'Honneur littered with household names of a certain age.

Heading yesterday's news was the latest honour for Johnny Hallyday, the superannuated French-language rock star (almost the only one). There, too, was Sacha Distel (remember him?), the gracefully-growing-old balladist of yesteryear, and the veteran fashion designer Pierre Cardin - one of those whose couture house has so far escaped the clutches of the enfants terribles from London.

There was a sprinkling of "achieving" women - France's first woman in space, Claudie Andre-Deshays, and the recently appointed female head of France's equivalent of the CID, Martine Monteil, among them - but there were also yards of establishment names, headed by one familiar from the distant past, the former prime minister, Maurice Couve de Murville.

For his 11-minute address on New Year's Eve Mr Chirac was looking, somehow, especially Gallic. He was suddenly one of "us", the French, rather than one of "them", those light-suited "Anglo-Saxons" whose easy, laid-back ways he often imitates on television.

The tricolour returned to the prominence of his first presidential broadcast, almost edging out the European flag, and he uttered the words "France" or "French" 16 times. Europe, which had a starring role in his previous appearance three weeks ago, scored a mere three mentions.

Most astonishing, though, was Mr Chirac's reassessment of his compatriots. Three weeks ago, in what was his first presidential broadcast for six months, he had described them as "conservatives", stubbornly resistant to any sort of change, and effectively blamed them for the parlous state of the country. He had also cast aspersions on much of government policy.

After a storm of criticism from the pundits about his attitude - "as though he was a spectator of his own government", said one -Mr Chirac had decided that his fellow-countrymen were doing pretty well. "France is changing, France is modernising itself, the French are mobilising," he insisted. "Beyond the conservatism ... that exists here and there, I see evidence of dynamism and vitality."

He had even decided that they were all in this together, "advancing together on the path of our joint ambitions". One of France's senior political commentators described the message as "basically a correction of his last broadcast". The French and their president, it seems, go into 1997 all square.

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