Chirac keen to save France from Royal

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The Independent Online

Will he or won't he? France yesterday contemplated with mingled astonishment and disbelief the possibility that Jacques Chirac, at the age of 74, might rise from his political death bed and run for a third presidential term.

After a series of combative new year speeches and policy announcements by the unpopular President, politicians and commentators were struggling to make sense of his strategy.

During his week of new year declarations or voeux - with several more still to come - M. Chirac has sounded anything but a politician who plans to slide quietly into retirement after the two-round presidential election in April and May. The president has gone out of his way to undermine - even humiliate - his former protégé, Nicolas Sarkozy, the man who expects to replace him as standard-bearer of the centre-right next week and as President of the Republic in May.

Some commentators believe that M. Chirac might - against all electoral logic - be preparing for another presidential campaign (his fifth). Others suggest that he is merely trying to de-rail M. Sarkozy as part of a 12-year enmity between two men once regarded as political father and son.

Either way, M. Chirac risks splitting the centre-right to the advantage of the veteran far-right leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen and, most of all, the Socialist candidate, Segolénè Royal.

The newspaper Le Républicain Lorrain said yesterday that the President was "emptying out daily" M. Sarkozy's campaign message, meaning that "Chirac is clearly voting Royal".

Many Sarkozy supporters on the centre-right - while angered by M. Chirac's behaviour - continue to dismiss all possibility that he will run again. The President is said to have repeatedly rebuffed approaches from die-hard loyalists who want to lay the preliminary foundations for an independent Chirac campaign.

On the other hand, the deeply Chiraquian prime minister Dominique de Villepin, said on Thursday that the presidential election season was "only starting" and that there would be "surprises to come".

A senior figure on the centre-right told The Independent last month that President Chirac had convinced himself - despite his low poll ratings - that only he could save France from a President Royal. The source said that M. Chirac hoped that M. Sarkozy, 51, would begin to dip in the polls - offering the President an opening to enter the race in February or March.

Although Mme Royal has taken a three or four point lead in the most recent polls, M. Sarkozy's support is holding up reasonably well. A string of Chirac loyalists, including the former prime minister, Alain Juppé and, yesterday, Catherine Colonna, the Europe minister and former Chirac spokeswoman , have declared their support for the younger man.

In his traditional new year speeches this week, starting with a televised address to the nation on Sunday night, M. Chirac has given no direct clue to his intentions. On the other hand, he has pointedly refused to endorse the ambitions of M. Sarkozy.

The Interior Minister is certain, as sole candidate, to win the official "nomination" of the ruling party, the Union Pour un Mouvement Populaire, on 14 January. President Chirac has let it be known that he will send no message of support to the party conference.

Instead, M. Chirac has set out a series of ideas for, simultaneously, cutting taxes and preserving the French welfare state. He has unashamedly stolen some ideas from M. Sarkozy but has also strongly warned the centre-right against the "temptation" of turning to a clean page and rejecting nearly 12 years of Chiraquism.

M. Sarkozy has repeatedly called for "rupture" with the centrist policies of the past 25 years.

In his latest new year declaration, to foreign ambassadors yesterday, M. Chirac sought to display his experience and mastery of international affairs. He said that the war in Iraq had "increased terrorism" in the world. He called on Iran to make a "gesture" in its nuclear stand-off with the West.

François-Xavier Pietri, writing in the business newspaper, La Tribune, said: "Jacques Chirac still astonishes us. He has launched the year with an electoral programme which leave little room for manoeuvre for a certain ... Nicolas Sarkozy."

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