Chirac is public enemy No 1

The President is under siege at home and isolated abroad - and even his nuclear test seems to have gone wrong
AS HE RETURNS from a two-day visit to Tunisia this weekend, Jacques Chirac, the President of France, has plenty to think about, and none of it is encouraging.

A slew of opinion polls confirm that his popularity is continuing its vertiginous downward plunge - as is that of his Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, who is increasingly under fire over the smart city-owned Parisian apartment he allocated himself when he was in charge of the capital's finances.

Millions of public sector employees are preparing for a national strike on Tuesday in a direct challenge to government policies. In Paris and other big cities, special anti-terrorist measures are still in force following the wave of summer bomb attacks that caught the authorities off-guard. And as for abroad - France cannot have enjoyed such international unpopularity for many decades.

Even within the President's own camp, low mutterings of discontent can be heard.

As one diplomat observed, Jacques Chirac may have spent all his political life aiming for the presidency - he succeeded on the third attempt - but now he has the job he seems to have no clear idea what to do with it.

Certainly, during the election campaign he had plenty of plans: taxes would be cut, jobs created, deficits slashed, social security protected and improved; France would be restored to its rightful place in the world. Those who wondered how all this would be possible were dismissed as the blinkered disciples of the pensee unique - the old conventional wisdom. But the man elected president with 52 per cent of the vote on 7 May has fallen faster and further in public esteem than any of his predecessors.

"We are disappointed, disappointed. There were all these promises. . ." muses Andre, who runs a tiny cafe restaurant in central Paris. He serves a three-course meal, wine included, for 62 francs (about pounds 8) but rages against the fact that 10 francs of that goes in social security contributions for his two staff, the cook and the waitress. Mr Chirac had promised tax cuts and a better deal for employers. But Mr Juppe has increased the rate of VAT (which Andre dare not pass on to his customers) raised other indirect taxes, abolished some tax breaks and frozen public sector wages, depressing the spending power of some of Andre's regulars.

But even these domestic dramas pale beside the President's performance on the international scene. It is no small achievement to have upset the entire planet - with the exception, apparently, of the British government - within five months of taking office.

The resumption of nuclear tests outraged not only the countries of the south Pacific - brushed away with an airy flick of the fingers: "On s'en fout de l'Australie", or "We don't give a damn about Australia" - but such heavyweights as the US, Japan and Russia. In the process it has cost him much of the credit he was rightly given for prodding the West into action over Bosnia.

Relations with five of France's 14 European Union partners are glacial - Sweden and Austria for their criticism of nuclear tests, Greece for its pro-Serb stance, the Netherlands for its alleged soft line on drugs, Belgium for inadequate border controls. Others in the Schengen group are angered by France's unilateral repudiation of its terms.

More worrying still is the German dimension. All of Mr Chirac's predecessors regarded close relations with Germany as the central priority of French foreign policy. If France wants the inter-governmental conference (IGC) on the follow-up to the Maastricht treaty to reflect its wishes, and if it is serious about economic and monetary union, it might be expected that the President would be working the special relationship with Bonn for all it was worth. The more so since Chancellor Helmut Kohl, has to confront a high level of German scepticism about monetary union.

But no. Mr Juppe's budget, with its choice of higher taxes over lower public spending, dismayed the Germans, who are wondering whether France is actually going to meet the criteria for monetary union by reducing its budget deficit

For foreigners, all this may prove the often-stated view of the previous French president, Francois Mitterrand, that Mr Chirac is simply not up to the job. But it is not his foreign policy that has upset the French; public opinion is vaguely against the nuclear tests but does not regard the issue as of urgent importance.

Rather, it has to do with the conduct of his government, starting with the problem presented by Mr Juppe. In what is probably the weakest cabinet the Fifth Republic has known, Mr Juppe is the sole authentic heavyweight.

He towers over such figures as the gaffe-prone Interior Minister, Jean- Louis Debre, whose own officials have felt it necessary to distance themselves from his recent statements on terrorist activity, and the bland Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette.

The job of prime minister is to be dispensable. When the going gets too rough he (or, once, she) is taken to the edge of the ship and invited to walk the plank. The president then appoints a new prime minister, sloughing off all the blame on to the outgoing premier. But these two are unusually closely identified; there is no political space between them. For the moment the Prime Minister seems impregnable: because there is no credible successor; because Mr Chirac, having sacked an economics minister, can hardly afford to lose a prime minister as well so early in his presidency; and because to let Mr Juppe go would be to repudiate his own policies.

Some expect the real crisis to come next spring or summer when the President may be forced either to abandon the franc fort policy and sever the link with the Deutschmark in the face of continuing high unemployment, or make the wildly unpopular spending cuts necessary to meet the Maastricht criteria. In the meantime a disappointed public wants evidence that better times are coming.

"The French are like that - they expect miracles," said one woman lunching in Paris with two colleagues. "It's absurd to be losing patience already," said one of her friends.

Mr Chirac knows how unpopular some of his predecessors have been at times and how the tide of opinion has turned in their favour. He is also certainly aware of a remarkable fact that must make him among the most envied of European leaders despite all his woes: he has six years and seven months more - a political eternity - to get things right.