June 27, 2006

Defiant Chirac under fire for defending French PM

By Crispian Balmer

PARIS (Reuters) - President Jacques Chirac's staunch
defense of his beleaguered prime minister won him few plaudits
on Tuesday as critics accused him of being out of touch, out of
ideas and out of time.

Chirac gave a rare television interview on Monday evening
to throw his weight behind gaffe-prone Prime Minister Dominique
de Villepin, praising the government for its economic record
and minimizing deep divisions within his own ruling majority.

But his defiant, upbeat message was belittled by opposition
politicians, much of the media and even by some his own
conservative deputies in the Union for a Popular Movement

"The disparity between what he sees and what the French and
the parliamentarians see is striking," Pierre Lellouche, UMP
parliamentarian told Le Parisien daily.

Chirac was forced onto the offensive after a disastrous
spell for Villepin, who has stumbled from one row to another
this year, most recently last week when he had to apologize for
calling the Socialist party leader a coward.

The president accused the media of whipping up political
ferment and said the government was doing a fine job reducing
unemployment and reviving the sluggish economy.

He also made clear that Villepin, whose popularity stands
at near record lows in the opinion polls, would stay in office
until the presidential and parliamentary elections set for


But political analysts said his rosy vision was out of
kilter with the reality and warned that France was likely to
achieve little in the months ahead of the twin ballots.

"Jacques Chirac has once again shown his talent and ability
for taking a few grains of truth and creating a false, unreal
universe when confronted by adversity from the real world,"
said Pierre Luc Seguillon, veteran commentator on LCI

Editorials in the French press were equally damning.

"What is terrible with Jacques Chirac is that he hears
nothing, understands nothing and sees nothing," regional
newspaper L'Est Republicain wrote.

Amidst the wave of criticism, some supporters stood up for
the president, applauding him for portraying France in a
positive light and for setting out a roadmap for the year
ahead, including a further push to cut unemployment and

"Yesterday we saw him act as a boss, laying out the
political priorities. Our role is to fulfill those priorities
for the French people," Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie
told Europe 1 radio.

But such praise tended to be drowned out by the critics,
who poked fun at Chirac for a couple of lapses, such as talking
about an Airbus A370 plane which doesn't exist, and said the
president was running out of steam after 11 years in power.

(Additional reporting by Laure Bretton)