July 14, 2005

Chirac tries to lift sagging French confidence

By Timothy Heritage

PARIS (Reuters) - President Jacques Chirac called on
Thursday for national unity and a new start after a string of
morale-sapping setbacks for France, but offered nothing new to
lift the gloom or boost his own fading fortunes.

Chirac defiantly declined to rule out seeking a third term
as president in 2007, reiterated pledges to reduce unemployment
and said France still had influence in the world despite its
rejection of the European Union constitution on May 29.

But the 72-year-old leader looked tired and uninspired in
his annual Bastille Day television interview after a slump in
popularity since the EU constitution defeat and Paris' failure
on July 6 to win the race to host the 2012 Olympic Games.

"We need ambition and unity. It is with ambition and unity
that we will get out of our difficulties," Chirac said in the
garden of his Elysee Palace in his annual interview on the
anniversary of the French revolution of 1789.

He said a positive debate on the state of Europe had
emerged from the referendum on the EU constitution and this had
given him new energy and ambition, adding: "We must use this
strength to go faster and further in the right direction."

In a comment that appeared aimed at outspoken Interior
Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, he added: "All of this assumes
politicians set an example and are united, unified and together
with the sole aim of serving the French people."

Sarkozy, who has presidential ambitions, was quoted by
French media as saying earlier this week that he did not
believe the president should give his traditional nationwide
interview if he had nothing to say.

Chirac allies hailed his performance as combative but
Francois Hollande, leader of the opposition Socialist Party,
said: "This is a president at the end of his reign."

"He doesn't listen," said Communist Party leader
Marie-George Buffet. "And no one listens to him any more."


Chirac, who has been president for 10 years, promised to
fight high unemployment, the main concern of voters. But he
made no new proposals for reducing it from a rate of 10.2
percent, its highest level in five years.

Chirac also said he favored resuming big income tax cuts
that have been suspended by the government, but he made clear
this would be hard and set no date for doing so.

He also called for closer cooperation between the 12 euro
zone countries and the European Central Bank in efforts to
boost economic growth, although the ECB is defending its

Chirac was vague about his political ambitions, declining
to say whether he plans to run in the 2007 presidential
election and whether his ally Prime Minister Dominique de
Villepin or rival Sarkozy is better placed to succeed him.

"I think it is too soon to discuss this matter," he said.

Pressed on his plans, he said: "You'll know when the time

Chirac was largely on the defensive but took a tough line
in the row with Britain over the EU's finances which helped
block a deal on the bloc's 2007-2013 budget at a summit last

Britain said it would agree to concessions over its annual
budget rebate from EU coffers only if there was a broad review
of EU spending, including subsidies to French farmers.

Ruling out concessions on this, Chirac said: "I feel sure
of myself because I am defending values which are certain."

Chirac also defended France's economic and social model,
which has been often been compared unfavorably with Britain's
system in recent weeks. He said he had great esteem for British
Prime Minister Tony Blair, despite their differences.