Embattled Chirac calls off visit to US

MARY DEJEVSKY

Paris

Reinforcing the impression of crisis and uncertainty at the top of the French administration, President Jacques Chirac has called off an official visit to the United States, planned for early November, citing "convenience and time". The visit is to be rescheduled for February.

The President's trip to the UN General Assembly in New York next week, including his controversial meeting with his Algerian counterpart, Liamine Zeroual, will go ahead. But the postponement of his first state visit to Washington sends disturbing signals. No national leader, even a determined Gaullist like Mr Chirac, cancels an engagement with the the world's only superpower without some consideration of the diplomatic cost.

News of the postponement, announced first in Washington but requested by Paris, came hours after an opinion poll had shown the ratings of the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, reaching a new low. In a telling detail, French commentators did not stress that Mr Juppe's popularity had fallen to 29 per cent, but said that it had almost reached the depths plumbed by Edith Cresson, the Socialist prime minister whose brief tenure at the Matignon made her a byword for political disaster. Mrs Cresson, now an EU Commissioner, had an approval rating of 28 per cent immediately before her dismissal.

Mr Chirac's poll rating stands at around 35 per cent. The decline in his popularity and that of the Prime Minister are without precedent for a new French administration. And while few now suggest that Mr Juppe's job is in danger - a legal fudge let him off the hook over his subsidised Paris flat - the polls add another piece to a picture which looks ever more gloomy for the five-month-old Chirac/Juppe leadership.

Abroad, French diplomacy is suffering from the resumption of nuclear testing last month and will continue to suffer until the series has been completed. Mr Chirac's decision to meet the Algerian leader in New York, whether or not it provoked the latest Paris bomb attack, has caused controversy in France and Algeria. In the words of one French commentator: "Politics is a matter of symbols; Mr Chirac has been unfortunate in the case of nuclear policy; clumsy in the case of Algeria."

At home, each successive political ruction causes the value of the franc to judder. There is undisguised scorn for Mr Juppe's escape from legal investigation and despair over the authorities' failure to halt the bombings. The Interior Minister, Jean-Louis Debre, has come in for special flak from the public, the police and, behind the scenes, from the judiciary, for ineffectiveness, naivety and indiscretion. Even the wisdom of imposing the national-security alert, which has put troops on the streets, is being questioned.

If this were not enough, the government has in the last two days faced stiff opposition from a usually supine National Assembly to its budget proposals - opposition which has come more from within the Gaullist-led coalition than from the left-wing opposition. By yesterday evening, MPs had forced an extra 4bn francs (pounds 500m) in public-spending cuts, restored some of the tax advantages of life-insurance policies and caused a rethink on housing and old-age benefit payments.

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