- The Washington Times - Monday, November 29, 2004

PARIS — President Jacques Chirac passed his 72nd birthday yesterday locked in a struggle to maintain his relevance in the face of an intraparty challenge and continuing friction with the world’s only superpower.

A generation older than most European leaders, he is sometimes viewed as a relic of the past, a symbol of “Old Europe” who, despite a long political career, never managed to achieve the iconic authority enjoyed by predecessors such as Francois Mitterrand or Charles de Gaulle.

But rather than quietly serving out the last three years of his second term, Mr. Chirac seems determined to keep the door open to another presidential run in 2007, a step that would keep him in office until age 80.

Facing a likely challenge in 2007 from his party’s rising star Nicolas Sarkozy, who resigned as finance minister to become chairman of the ruling Popular Movement Party (UMP), Mr. Chirac struck back by naming a close ally, Herve Gaymard, 44, to replace Mr. Sarkozy at the influential Finance Ministry.

Mr. Sarkozy, whose rise comes in spite of repeated roadblocks thrown in his way by Mr. Chirac, served notice in a speech of his own on Sunday that he intends to shake up the governing party.

Describing the status quo as “our adversary,” he reportedly told his supporters that “things are going to change. We will not disappoint.”

Among the things he hopes to change may be a way of doing things that led to scandals in 2000 and 2001, involving corruption during Mr. Chirac’s time as mayor of Paris and earlier as party chief.

Mr. Chirac used a claim of presidential immunity to avoid answering questions about suspected bribes paid to persons close to him, and the scandals have largely been forgotten.

On the international stage, Mr. Chirac seems determined to remain on the course he set with his withering opposition to U.S. plans to invade Iraq, even as his European allies seek to mend fences with Washington.

Just before a meeting in London this month with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, he offended both Britain and the United States by declaring that the occupation of Iraq had led to an increase in terrorism.

“In the short term, [such behavior] even enhances his role as an alternative voice,” said Timothy Garton Ash, a professor of European Studies at Oxford University who recently published a book on the future of America and Europe.

“But in the longer term, it would shift the balance to his disadvantage, particularly if Germany decides that it needs to repair relations with the United States.” Germany has already moved closer to Washington this month by agreeing to write off up to 80 percent of Iraq’s debt.

Other analysts said much of Europe is at a crossroads, undecided whether to join Mr. Blair in an attempt at trans-Atlantic reconciliation or side with Mr. Chirac in establishing an alternative power center.

“If U.S. policy and diplomacy is clever enough to demonstrate that it understands and considers the European Union’s viewpoint, it could isolate Chirac,” said Philippe Moreau Defarges, an analyst at the French Institute of International Relations.

“But since the United States’ intervention in Iraq is not regarded as successful here, if Chirac can exploit this anti-war feeling, he will not be totally isolated, because there is already so much distrust of the Bush administration.”

Mr. Chirac also finds his influence limited by the expansion of the European Union to 25 countries, many of which are unwilling to follow the dictates of the so-called Big Three — France, Britain and Germany.

“The French are realizing that there are real limitations to French influence in Europe,” said Giles Merritt, director of the Brussels-based think tank Friends of Europe.

“They realize that the way Europe is developing is not along French lines — it’s a hybrid. The feeling is that France has lost an awful lot of its clout in European circles, personified by Chirac failing to have the same sort of dominance and leadership he [once] had,” Mr. Merritt said.

Mr. Chirac “is more like an older politician than an elder statesman,” he added.

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