Chirac leaves hospital but the mystery remains

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The Independent Online

France's 72-year-old President strode from the Val-de-Grâce military hospital with a cheery wave, before making a longish speech to journalists and a crowd of well-wishers.

The crowd - chanting "Chi-rac, Chi-rac" - consisted mostly of supporters from his rural fiefdom in Corrèze, who were bused 300 miles to the Paris suburbs for the occasion.

The manner of the President's leaving hospital appeared to have been carefully choreographed by his image adviser and daughter, Claude, to respond to the rumours swirling through the media-political village of Paris in recent days.

These included: "The President cannot walk properly"; "The President has lost part of vision"; "His speech is slurred"; "He will never be able to fly again".

Such rumours filled the vacuum left by the paucity of information on President Chirac's condition released from the military hospital at Val-de-Grâce. He was taken there last Friday with what was described as "un petit accident vasculaire" which had impaired his vision.

No one - not even the Prime Minister, Dominique de Villepin - was told until the following morning. Further medical bulletins were reassuring but vague.

It appeared - but was never clearly stated - that M. Chirac had suffered a "mini-stroke", or minor failure of a cerebral vein. The president of the French equivalent of the British Medical Association - the Conseil National de l'Ordre des Medécins, Jacques Roland, complained on Wednesday that the bulletins were being issued not by doctors but by spin-doctors.

"They are being written not by anyone with medical training but by his political advisers," M. Roland said. The hospital denied it.

President Chirac duly looked hale and hearty as he strode from the hospital yesterday.

There was no sign of slurred speech as he launched into a long statement, mostly about the excellence of the care he had received and how lucky France was to have such an excellent heath service.

"I feel in very good form," M. Chirac said, but admitted that his doctors had told him to be "raisonnable" (careful) for another week.

"I will be as reasonable as possible because I am a disciplined man," M. Chirac said, smiling.

His doctors have advised him against air travel for the next six weeks, meaning that he will be unable to fly as planned to New York next week to a global summit on world poverty and reform of the United Nations.

His performance yesterday left many questions unanswered. If the President's illness was temporary and minor, why did he stay in hospital for so long? Why was no picture, or television footage, of the convalescent President allowed? Why were the medical bulletins so circumspect? The rumours which flooded Paris were fuelled by the poor record of past presidents in admitting to serious ailments.

When Georges Pompidou died in 1974, it was the first time that most French people knew that he had a life-threatening form of cancer. President François Mitterrand disguised a less acute form of cancer for all 14 years of his double term of office. Serious or not, President Chirac's "little accident" appears to rule out all possibility of his running for an unprecedented third term in 2007. This, at least, is the opinion of French political commentators of left and right.

The decision to bus a crowd of Chirac supporters to Val-de-Grâce to show how "popular" the President remains suggests that "le clan Chirac" may have a different opinion.

The President's illness has launched a whirlwind of speculation about his successor, especially in his own centre-right camp.

M. de Villepin is emerging as a strong rival for the succession to Nicolas Sarkozy, the Interior Minister, and has been the main beneficiary of the President's "petit accident". He took the President's place at the weekly cabinet meeting on Wednesday and will replace M. Chirac at the UN summit.