Faltering Chirac urged to step aside

As he turns 71, the president is seen by critics as ineffective - and a 'lean and hungry' minister is openly after his job
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The Independent Online

President Jacques Chirac is a convivial man, but he had little reason to wish to celebrate his 71st birthday yesterday.

Sinking in the polls, challenged within his own party, criticised for messing up - or ignoring - domestic and European policy, the man who defied Washington almost single-handedly eight months ago seems to have stumbled into another of the political quicksands which have punctuated his career. Worse, the birthday draws attention to one political problem he cannot reverse: his advancing age and alleged growing infirmity.

Paris Match carried a picture last week of Mr Chirac wearing a discreet hearing aid, whose existence the Elysée Palace had at first denied and then described as "experimental". Plantu, the acerbic and influential front-page cartoonist in Le Monde, has taken to drawing the President as the dotty Professor Nimbus from the Tintin cartoon books, holding an ear trumpet and misunderstanding everything that he hears.

Observers at the summit between Mr Chirac and Tony Blair last week were struck by the President's occasional signs of physical frailty. There have been constant rumours since the summer that he is suffering from an illness which has not been made public.

Meanwhile, the suddenly unpopular Prime Minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin - Mr Chirac's protégé and shield - has been forced into a series of U-turns, on tobacco taxes, education reform and the unpicking of France's 35-hour working week.

France and Germany's inflated budget deficits, and licensed trampling of the euro's rules on fiscal discipline, were presented in the rest of Europe as signs of the arrogance of the Continent's "big two". They have been presented in France as a national humiliation and a further weakening of France's fading influence over a soon-to-be 25 member EU.

A poll of French "opinion leaders", published yesterday, toppled Mr Chirac from his habitual position as the most respected French political figure and relegated him to a humiliating fifth place.

The man who came top was a classically "lean and hungry" politician, the interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, 48, nominally an ally of Mr Chirac's but a man long distrusted - and even detested - within the French First Family. (Among other things, he once as a young bachelor broke off a love affair with the President's daughter and media adviser, Claude.) Mr Sarkozy's ambitions to replace him as the dominant figure on the French centre-right have become embarrassingly open.

The hyperactive and effective interior minister said that he "dreamed about 2007" - the date of the next presidential election - "and not only when I am shaving". He also said that France should borrow the US rule which limits heads of state to two terms. President Chirac, who will be 74 by the next election, two years older than the late President François Mitterrand when he won a second term, has made it clear to friends that he is considering running for an unprecedented third term.

Mr Sarkozy later denied he was advocating a two-term limit for Mr Chirac - any change could not be retroactive, he said. Nonetheless, the interior minister's meaning was clear. "Once you have given all that you feel capable of giving for your country, it is only right that you should let others have a turn."