Chirac 'learns lesson' of French strikes

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Jacques Chirac last night defended the "courageous action" of his Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, in mounting his controversial welfare reforms and hailed the spirit of "calm, responsibility and solidarity" shown by French people during more than three weeks of strikes. But Mr Chirac also promised that he and the government had learnt important lessons from the protests, including the need for more dialogue and consensus. "You cannot change France without the French," he said.

Mr Chirac was delivering the president's traditional New Year greetings to the nation in an early evening broadcast on national television. Speaking from the Elysee Palace, with the French tricolour and blue and gold European Union flag behind him, Mr Chirac appealed to the French people to show a new spirit of unity and confidence in France and its future.

Implicitly answering widespread criticism that he had broken many of his election promises - including his pledges to cut unemployment and reduce taxes - and disappointed the hopes of French voters, Mr Chirac said: "I am the bearer of those hopes, and they will not be disappointed." He noted: "We are only at the beginning of the road, but it is the right road."

While the presidential New Year message has always been closely scrutinised for clues about the leader's mood and intentions, last night's message had been especially keenly awaited because of Mr Chirac's long silence concerning the strikes and street protests that paralysed Paris and much of France from late November. Before yesterday, Mr Chirac had limited himself to a few gnomic expressions of support for welfare reform or Mr Juppe, usually relayed by the government spokesman after the weekly Cabinet meetings.

Last night Mr Chirac finally came off the fence, giving his full support to the Prime Minister "and the whole government", but allowing himself also some gentle chiding. He noted the distance that many people felt existed between themselves and political leaders and stressed: "You cannot govern France in the same way now that you could in the past 20 years." Leaders had to listen more.

Mr Chirac made an effort to set the future tone by acknowledging people's general sense of insecurity and the real difficulties they had faced during the strikes. "You showed exemplary responsibility and solidarity," he told his viewers. "You got up really early just to get to work on time. I salute your calm determination." He neglected to mention, however, that the last bastion of the protests - public transport in Marseilles - was last night still on strike.

Some observers believed that in leaving Mr Juppe to take the flak for the welfare reform throughout, while himself pursuing a busy programme of international diplomacy, Mr Chirac was deliberately drawing a distinction between his role as president and the day-to-day business of governing the country - enshrined in the constitutional cliche, "The president presides and the government governs." His apparent aloofness, however, at a time when the country seemed to be descending into chaos by the day, drew sharp criticism from several senior politicians, including a former president, Valery Giscard d'Estaing.

As Mr Chirac's first presidential New Year message, last night's broadcast was studied also for the signals it sent about his image of himself and the presidency. His decision to start and end the broadcast with the Marseillaise reverted to the practice of General de Gaulle - his acknowledged mentor.

But Mr Chirac also followed his immediate predecessor, Francois Mitterrand, in choosing to place the French and European flags behind his desk. While the presence of the European flag was doubtless intended to support Mr Chirac's chief foreign policy message that Europe "is the guarantor of our defence" and reassure the Germans about France's continued commitment to Europe, a degree of ambiguity remained. Was it a mere oversight that the European flag was positioned in such a way that the French tricolour alone was reflected throughout the broadcast in the mirror behind the president's desk?