- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 15, 2007

PARIS — Jacques Chirac, in his final presidential appeal to the French, urged his compatriots yesterday to stay united and proud of the nation he led for 12 years despite uncertainty about France’s place in today’s world.

“Always stay united,” Mr. Chirac said in a brief televised address yesterday night, before the debonair 74-year-old turns over the presidency to fellow conservative Nicolas Sarkozy today.

“A nation is a family. This link that unites us is our most precious asset,” he said, sitting in front of French and European Union flags.

He said France should be a nation of equal opportunity and an engine of European integration. Both appeals recalled low points of his tenure: the 2005 riots that laid bare deep-rooted discrimination against France’s immigrants, and the French rejection of the EU constitution that Mr. Chirac had championed.

He expressed “pride in a duty fulfilled” but did not list any accomplishments, and his statement lacked the eloquence and passion that have marked many of his speeches.

“I know that the new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, will endeavor to lead our nation forward on the paths of the future,” Mr. Chirac said of his protege-turned-rival, who was elected May 6 after promising an end to the economic stagnation and social tensions that marred Mr. Chirac’s tenure.

Mr. Chirac often shone brighter on the global stage than at home, but he made no reference in his parting speech to his dream of a “multipolar world” less dominated by the United States, or of his steadfast opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, a defining moment of his presidency.

Mr. Chirac said he would turn his post-presidential attention to “dialogue among cultures and sustainable development.”

He is expected to create a foundation to capitalize on his international reputation, similar to that of former President Bill Clinton. Aides say the Chirac foundation will focus particularly on Africa.

Mr. Chirac sought to bring environmental issues into the spotlight, though critics say he had more words than action on the subject. He often stressed cultural understanding over exporting Western values — a stance that Mr. Sarkozy distanced himself from in an election-night speech in which he said France would stand beside those oppressed by fundamentalism.

France’s relations with Africa are likely to be less close and more pragmatic with the departure of Mr. Chirac, who nurtured ties with former colonies in Africa — and was criticized for cozying up to authoritarian African leaders. Mr. Sarkozy has few of those connections.

Stepping down from the presidency, Mr. Chirac will be closing out some four decades in politics. Mr. Chirac founded the neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic party, today transformed into the Union for a Popular Movement that Mr. Sarkozy headed before being elected president.

Mr. Chirac built the mainstream right into a powerful political machine. His ambitious search for funds for his party is at the heart of corruption accusations that implicated him but never touched him while he had presidential immunity. He could be summoned for questioning in investigations into illegal party financing as soon as next month, judicial officials say.

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