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Chirac bows out, and the race is on

Long a fixture in French politics, he confirms he won't seek a third term as president. A close contest is anticipated.

March 12, 2007|Sebastian Rotella | Times Staff Writer

PARIS — Setting the stage for a suspenseful presidential race, French President Jacques Chirac announced Sunday that he would not run for a third term after 12 years in office and 40 years in politics.

The announcement by Chirac, 74, was not a surprise. His popularity has sunk as the result of economic and political malaise, urban riots, corruption scandals and electoral setbacks. But the decision cast into sharp relief his longtime dominance of politics here as president, prime minister and mayor of Paris, and his roller-coaster relationship with voters.

"I will not seek your votes for a new term," Chirac said in a nationally televised address. " ... [But] I will continue to press the struggles that are all of ours, the struggles of my whole life, for justice, for progress, for peace, for the greatness of France."

Chirac's move came after months of refusing to rule out a bid and flirting with fielding his own intraparty challenger to Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, 52, of the ruling center-right movement.

Other candidates include Francois Bayrou, 55, a centrist preaching pragmatism and unity. Initially considered a longshot, he has unexpectedly pulled even in polls with Segolene Royal, 53, of the opposition Socialists, and they are not far behind Sarkozy.

Far-right maverick Jean-Marie Le Pen, 78, retains enough support to influence the outcome five years after he upset the Socialists, then lost the runoff to Chirac. But this week, he still must finish obtaining the 500 signatures from elected officials necessary to validate a presidential candidacy in France.

The candidates have been campaigning hard in the run-up to the official start of the race Thursday. The first-round vote will be April 22.

In his speech Sunday night, Chirac said he would discuss his choice of a candidate soon. He spent most of the address expressing remarkable emotion for a political warhorse who has cultivated the lofty, regal image of an elder statesman among Western leaders.

"You have not for an instant ceased to inhabit my heart and my spirit," he said. "I have not for a minute stopped serving this magnificent France, this France that I love as much as I love you."

Chirac cited achievements including a drop in crime, lower unemployment and laws to protect France's secular tradition, the disabled and the elderly. He did not specifically cite the policy that pushed him to the height of his popularity and will endure in history books: his leadership of international opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Chirac urged the French to reject extremism, overcome their resistance to the consolidation of the European Union and support efforts against world poverty and global warming.

In televised responses, Royal, Bayrou and a Sarkozy spokesman praised the president for a dignified performance. But the combative Le Pen unleashed a characteristic broadside against the man he described as a dire enemy.

"I think Jacques Chirac was the worst president of the republic in the history of France," Le Pen said. "I think that the proof that he has led the country to disaster is that the candidates of his majority ... have distanced themselves and accentuated their differences with him."

Le Pen is likely to dominate political calculations this week. If on Friday he finds himself unable to run for lack of signatures, the race could become more volatile as candidates vie for his voters.

In such a scenario, Sarkozy and Bayrou could pick up enough votes to win the first round handily, according to a poll published Sunday in the Journal du Dimanche newspaper.

If Le Pen is in the race, he would get 13% of the vote to 23% for Royal, 25% for Bayrou and 28% for Sarkozy, the poll said.

Sarkozy advisors worry that the unpredictable Le Pen bloc might blame the ruling party for his elimination and swing to Bayrou or Royal instead.

Meanwhile, Bayrou has attracted Socialists disgruntled with Royal's stumbles, particularly verbal gaffes about foreign policy that are unsettling in a nation where the president's primary concerns are foreign affairs and defense. Although he is a centrist former ally of the ruling party, Bayrou has cultivated leftists by saying his government would include leaders from across the political spectrum.


Achrene Sicakyuz of The Times' Paris Bureau contributed to this report.

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