Tetchy Chirac defends record

France celebrated its national holiday, Bastille Day, yesterday with the traditional military parade, presidential address, champagne and fireworks, but without the confidence and singleness of national purpose that had marked last year's festivities, a month after Jacques Chirac's inauguration as President. Even the weather conspired to depress the mood, with sombre skies dimming the luminous colours of the parade.

The South African President, Nelson Mandela, was warmly applauded as guest of honour, but he walked with difficulty up the steps to his place in the official stand, and looked frail after standing - like his host - for the best part of the 90-minute spectacle.

The final event of the military parade, a fly-past by French and British air force planes above the Champs Elysees, also had something bittersweet. For the British, it was a singular coup for the RAF to be invited to take part in the Bastille Day parade, and the first time any foreign force had done so outside the joint Eurocorps. The small contingent of Harriers and Tornados flying in perfect formation cut a particular dash after a display dominated by Mirages.

In France, however, the participation of the eight British planes underlined not just the growing military co-operation with Britain, but the imminence of changes to France's military structures and the diminution of its self- sufficiency in defence.

Even the usually placid and optimistic President Chirac could not overcome the general mood. Although he gave his address in the form of a live television interview from a specially constructed bower in the leafy grounds of the Elysee Palace, his message was downbeat and betrayed a slight tetchiness. Rather than rallying his fellow countrymen to greater things, Mr Chirac found himself mounting an awkward, point- by-point defence of his record - especially on the proliferation of political corruption cases and the question of judicial independence.

"As long as I am in office," he said, "justice will be done and will be the same for all." He added, however, that the current spate of corruption cases in France showed that "times have changed, and morality is more demanding".

Mr Chirac also felt the need to shield his Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, who had come in for renewed criticism in the previous week, including a strong call for his removal in a Le Monde newspaper editorial "in order to protect the presidency". Comparing his stated goals with his actual achievements (on jobs and social division for example), the paper said that the adjective he had used against the record of his predecessor, Edouard Balladur, could now be turned on him: "calamitous".

Yesterday, Mr Chirac said defensively that if the government had not been up to its task, he would have drawn the relevant conclusions and said Mr Juppe had done "the best possible job" in very difficult circumstances.

If Mr Juppe was spared, however, a whole collection of others were chided: the banks, for keeping interest rates too high; the previous government, for not monitoring the banks closely enough (and so precipitating the crises at Credit Lyonnais and Credit Foncier); MPs of the governing coalition, for not being dynamic and positive enough; MPs of the opposition, for not being "imaginative" enough; and the judiciary, for moving "too slowly".

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