- The Washington Times - Monday, November 28, 2005

PARIS — Jacques Chirac’s presidency hit a new low Sunday when a poll revealed that most voters think he now has little or no influence over events at home or abroad.

Of those polled, 72 percent regarded the influence of their president — who turns 73 today — over what happens in France as “weak.” Two-thirds said his clout on the world stage was feeble, while only 36 percent thought he held any significant sway over European politics.

Condemnation came from all age groups and corners of France. Women were slightly less critical.

The poll, conducted for Le Parisien newspaper by the CSA Polling Institute, was all the more humiliating because the opinion of supporters of Mr. Chirac’s conservative ruling Union for a Popular Movement party was scarcely more favorable than those of voters on the left. Forty-three percent of UMP voters thought he still had a leading role to play in France.

With presidential elections not due until 2007, the poll raises serious questions about Mr. Chirac’s perceived lame-duck status and his ability to maintain his authority.

“Unless some spectacular event occurs, the 17 remaining months of his mandate are likely to be very tricky,” said Roland Cayrol, director of the CSA institute.

Mr. Chirac’s 10th year in power has been a bad one. He has notched up an unenviable string of defeats — not least over the referendum on the European constitution.

The poll also is an indictment of his handling of the recent wave of rioting in the poor suburbs.

Although Chirac loyalists say he was in control behind the scenes, he was criticized for not addressing the public sooner — allowing his prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, and interior minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, to handle the crisis instead. The two appear to have gained political credit from the riots — Mr. Sarkozy for his tough stance and Mr. de Villepin for his statesmanship.

“In fact, Chirac was the one at the master controls, and it was he who gave the green light to impose a state of emergency and curfews. But the fact that he took three weeks to solemnly address the French [after the rioting began] was manifestly a mistake,” Mr. Cayrol said.

The president also has had to contend with ill-health. In September, he suffered what is thought to have been a minor stroke, with doctors advising him to rest and to avoid air travel for a month.

Since then, he has appeared more withdrawn. “The Elysee [presidential palace] has become a bunker which is impossible to approach, and this is even truer since the president’s health worries,” a former Chirac ally told Le Parisien.

Some analysts say Mr. Chirac’s absence from the political stage has been carefully orchestrated to allow his protege, Mr. de Villepin, to appear as the nation’s de facto leader, and a credible presidential alternative to his rival, Mr. Sarkozy, who leads the UMP.

Mr. de Villepin recently stood in for Mr. Chirac at a United Nations summit, and the prime minister’s fight to cut unemployment has boosted his popularity.

The prevailing view is that the president will stop at nothing to block Mr. Sarkozy’s rise to power — even if it means backing a socialist candidate.

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