President Jacques Chirac appears to have finally conceded that his 40-year career in politics is coming to an end.
In a television interview to be broadcast this weekend, M. Chirac, 74, says that there is "life after politics" and that he is ready to "serve France in another way".
The Elysée Palace insisted that his comments were merely a "hypothetical answer to a hypothetical question". The President's spokesman said that he had still not decided whether he would run for a third term in the April-May elections. However, the tone of M. Chirac's comments, leaked yesterday, and comments by his wife in the same broadcast, clearly suggest that he is now resigned to leaving office in May.
With his estranged former protégé, Nicolas Sarkozy leading the opinion polls, and the Socialist candidate, Ségolène Royal, struggling, M. Chirac's chances of mounting a belated campaign have sunk in recent weeks from unrealistic to non-existent. Recent polls have suggested that he would score only a humiliating 5 per cent of the vote in the first round on 22 April.
Four weeks ago, M. Chirac said that he would "give serious thought" to the possibility of running again, and in December, he was reported to believe that the popularity of Mme Royal would give him a chance to brush M. Sarkozy's hopes aside and emerge once again as the champion of the French centre-right.
M. Chirac's comments, to be broadcast on Sunday during a programme about his wife, suggest he has now bowed to the inevitable. When asked by the veteran interviewer, Michel Drucker, if he had considered how he would spend his time after he leaves office, he replied: "You know, I am not someone who makes a cult of the past. I have given myself up entirely to my chosen mission to serve the people of France. If I no longer have responsibilities of that kind, well then, I will try to serve France in another way." Asked if there was life after politics, M. Chirac says: "There is no doubt that there is life after politics. Until death." Bernadette Chirac, the guest of honour of the programme on Sunday afternoon, is said to be almost in tears when she says "the end is a little sad". She said that she would miss the Elysée Place but that she would have to accept "what destiny decides".
M. Chirac is not expected to announce his decision until the end of this month. He fears that all of his authority will ebb away once he finally acknowledges M. Sarkozy as the new standard-bearer of the centre-right.
M. Sarkozy, the Interior Minister, leads Mme Royal by around 53 per cent to 47 per cent in forecasts for the second round of voting on 6 May. However, M. Sarkozy's slick and well-organised campaign ran into two difficulties yesterday.
Following a series of incidents in which he seems to have confused his roles as minister and candidate, he was berated yesterday for taking his campaign onto two naval vessels in Toulon harbour, including France's only aircraft carrier, the Charles de Gaulle. The Socialist former education minister, Jack Lang, said that this was a serious enough mistake to "disqualify" M. Sarkozy from running.
At the same time, two policemen were formally accused of failing to save the lives of two teenage boys whose deaths led to three weeks of suburban riots which shook France 15 months ago. At the time, the police and M. Sarkozy denied that the two boys had been chased into an electricity sub-station by police and then left to their deaths. An investigating magistrate has now decided that there is a possible case against two officers.