Chirac's second thoughts on media glasnost

After President Jacques Chirac's two-hour television grilling on Thursday night, the Elysee could be forgiven for having second thoughts about its elaborate exercise to engage the President in a "real dialogue' with the people. For the first time, the high, protective walls guarded by the country's political media establishment were breached, a measure of glasnost came to French political broadcasting - and the result was not to the President's advantage.

In place of the flag, anthem and a respectful, almost reverential, tone, Mr Chirac was introduced with racy film-clips contrasting his election promises with his performance in office and asked to defend him- self. Instead of deferentially open questions of traditional presidential broadcasts, Mr Chirac was asked real questions, the sort the French "man or woman on the metro" asks, but which political interviewers on French television avoid.

"Why is the country in such a mess?" "Why did you attack technocrats during your presidential campaign, but now surround yourself with them?" "What about the political corruption cases, including those of your own Gaullist party?"

When, as with the corruption question, Mr Chirac veered off in another direction, he was hauled back to address the specific point. The two younger interviewers even had the tem- erity to try the odd interruption.

To British eyes and ears accustomed to the aggressive questioning of politicians on the Today programme or Newsnight, Mr Chirac had an easy ride. No one was trying to catch him out, no one was trying to make him say anything he did not want to say. Even so, the decision to bring to the interview-ing table journalists from out- side France's closed political media clique was a bold step, engineered largely by Mr Chirac's daughter, Claude. She masterminded his appeal to the youth vote during the presidential campaign and has since done her utmost to update the way the president is packaged.

Bringing the presentation up to date, however, means the President, too, has to adapt - and the evidence is that there is still some way to go. As some critics of Mr Chirac's performance said yesterday, it was as though Mr Chirac was a spectator of his own government, as though he had nothing to do with decisions taken and could applaud or deplore the government's performance at will.