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Leading article: A flawed President prepares to bow out

President Chirac has kept France guessing - something he has elevated to a personal art form - but seems finally to have accepted the inevitable. At 74, with two ambitious and energetic younger candidates fighting for his job, his chances of re-election are zero.

M. Chirac's admission came in a television interview to be broadcast this weekend as part of a programme paying tribute to his wife and France's first lady, Bernadette. But details found their way into the French press yesterday. "There is life after politics," he is quoted as saying, adding by way of self-justification, that he had "always tried to act for the French people". It is hard to interpret this as anything other than a farewell.

Elysée spinmeisters insisted that his words gave no hint of his intentions. He would, they said, announce his decision when he chose to do so. But any hopes they, and he, might have had of avoiding the lame-duckery so evident in London and Washington were vain. Ten weeks before the election, M. Chirac's authority is draining away. It is legacy time in Paris, too.

The truth is though that, for the majority of French voters, M. Chirac has been yesterday's man at very least since Nicolas Sarkozy's campaign to succeed him went into overdrive late last year. Arguably his decline began well before that, with the unexplained illness he suffered 18 months ago. Now, the lead M. Sarkozy currently enjoys in the opinion polls leaves M. Chirac without the popularity gap he might have hoped to exploit. For a politician who, like his nation, values elegance and the maintenance of proper appearances, M. Chirac now has little choice but to prepare for his departure.

Overall, his political career will probably be judged more kindly than his chief detractors would like, but more harshly than his traditional Gaullist supporters in the provinces would hope. For the voters of his own heartland in central France, he will remain a respected patron of a very Gallic and benevolent stamp - and they will not be completely wrong.

M. Chirac also deserves to be taken at face value when he says that he always tried to act for the French people. Infuriating though the non-French world may often have found this, M. Chirac's presidency is distinguished by its forthright defence of his country's national interest. And who is to say that, in his efforts to make French society more cohesive, in the defiant last nuclear test he ordered, or in his critical approach to the Bush administration and his fierce opposition to the Iraq war, he was always wrong?

M. Chirac's greatest failure was in the big domestic goals he set. Successfully campaigning to become President at the third attempt, he rightly identified social exclusion as a blight. But he will leave office after 12 years with the country's social divisions just as acute as he found them. His efforts to drag France into the modern age of mobility and the free market were also thwarted, as successive laws met resistance from the streets. He lacked the conviction to drive through the reforms that were so badly needed and the political imagination that might have made them palatable. The ethical questions that dogged his career may also have discouraged him from putting his job on the line, for fear that a prison cell might await the other side.

Some would argue that the whole of M. Chirac's second term was a mistake, facilitated by the perverse first-round result of 2002, when Socialist complacency propelled the National Front leader into the second round. And it is true that he did not use his landslide victory to good effect. His instinct, though, was correct: the strength of his mandate was illusory. M. Chirac was a strong personality, but ultimately a weak President. It is time for him to leave the stage to a new generation.