- The Washington Times - Tuesday, June 29, 2004

PARIS — After four decades navigating the fickle currents of French politics, President Jacques Chirac finds himself in some of the deepest waters of his marathon career.

His popularity and that of his prime minister, Jean-Pierre Raffarin, have plunged, with ratings at their lowest levels in his 9-year-old presidency, as France’s conservative government pushes through unpopular reforms.

Now, the 71-year-old French leader faces rebellion within the ranks of his Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP party — not only over key policy issues, but also over a man who has declared his intent to take over Mr. Chirac’s job in 2007.

That man is Mr. Chirac’s finance minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, who said in a November television interview that he thinks about being president, “and not only when I’m shaving.”

Today, Mr. Sarkozy is considered a top pick to replace Mr. Chirac’s favored successor, Alain Juppe, as head of the UMP this fall.

Mr. Sarkozy challenged Mr. Chirac anew over the weekend, appearing to reject his ultimatum that Mr. Sarkozy could either seek the UMP leadership or stay on as finance minister — but not keep both posts.

Mr. Sarkozy told UMP adherents during a strained two-day meeting near Paris that he would respect the rules so long “as they were the same for all.”

His remarks were a less-than-veiled allusion to Mr. Juppe, president of the UMP and mayor of Bordeaux, and to Mr. Chirac’s career, in which he once juggled dual posts of prime minister and mayor of Paris.

Mr. Chirac “is at the end of his political existence,” said Bernard Debre, a politician from the smaller, center-right Union for French Democracy party, on Radio Monte Carlo.

But others hesitate to write off a man who has made political comebacks.

“It would be a bit fast to announce the end of his political career,” said Florence Haegel, a researcher at the Center for the Study of French Political Life. “Jacques Chirac, along with other political leaders, like [former President] Francois Mitterrand, have had moments of crisis and weakness and rebounded before.”

For the French public and many conservative politicians, however, Mr. Sarkozy, who once dated Mr. Chirac’s daughter, can do little wrong.

When Mr. Chirac handed him the tough job of interior minister two years ago, Mr. Sarkozy, 49, presided over a successful crackdown on crime and drunken driving. Even today, Mr. Sarkozy remains France’s most popular conservative politician, despite being responsible for managing the country’s lackluster economy.

Within the ranks of the UMP, many also see him as the only viable leader. Mr. Chirac has not responded publicly to Mr. Sarkozy’s challenge. But pundits — and the public — are awaiting the president’s traditional Bastille Day remarks on television in two weeks.

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