- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 19, 2001

PARIS — The gloves are off in the hitherto silent but palpable conflict between French President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.
Their "war" is now punctuated by bitter criticism and accusations of fraud, mismanagement and failure. Polite silence and the occasional innuendo are gone.
"The guerrilla war has been declared," said a banner headline in the conservative daily Le Figaro.
To the liberal daily Le Monde, the conflict between the two men at the helm of France is "frontal and brutal." The conservative president and his socialist prime minister "have become involved in a murderous cohabitation," the newspaper wrote.
While the conservatives are rallying behind Mr. Chirac, the left-wing parties forming the parliamentary majority have vowed to adopt a policy of "zero toleration" for the president until next spring's elections.
The clash between Mr. Chirac and the socialist-led government is seen by French commentators as the informal start of next year's presidential-election campaign. Mr. Chirac and Mr. Jospin are expected to be the main candidates.
The silent feud between the two exploded Saturday, Bastille Day, the national holiday commemorating the revolutionary attack on the Bastille prison in 1789.
With rain lashing Paris and troops in soaking uniforms rushing to their barracks after a two-hour parade along the Champs Elysees, Mr. Chirac proceeded to give the traditional televised interview regarded by many as a "state of the nation" report.
His answers and statements were blunt, haughty and bitter.
Bombarded with questions by three interviewers, the president rejected bribery allegations against him that are being investigated by the Paris prosecutor, calling them a political ploy, placed himself virtually above the law and delivered an all-out attack on the Jospin government.
He accused the socialist government of failing to maintain security in urban ghettoes, of pursuing the outdated concept of regulating the lives of French citizens, and of mishandling the problems of unemployment, taxes and old-age pensions.
The French had expected the president to explain why he had paid the equivalent of $310,000 in cash for airline tickets for his family and aides while he was mayor of Paris.
Apparently some of the funds had come from the period when Mr. Chirac served as prime minister before becoming mayor of the French capital.
The so-called "special funds" were allowed by a law in 1946 that authorized senior officials to use them without questions of tax or accountability.
At least in theory, they were intended to reward civil servants working long hours on relatively low salaries.
Last year, the funds amounted to 473 million francs, or about $62 million at the present rate of exchange.
Asked about the amounts he distributed to his staff, Mr. Chirac declined to answer, claiming "It is a secret which does not belong to me alone."
As long as he serves as president, Mr. Chirac is free from investigation and from any form of prosecution.
He reaffirmed this in no uncertain terms, saying "the president of the republic is not a citizen like others."
The socialist government responded immediately with various ministers refuting point by point Mr. Chirac's accusations, claims and even statistics.
The sharpening tone prompted Anne Fulda, a political commentator, to conclude "nine months more at this pace and the concept of constructive cohabitation will be no more than a pious souvenir."

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