As France limps unhappily to its rendezvous with European destiny on Sunday week, the French people are voting on everything except the contents of the new EU treaty itself. Above all, they are voting on their president, Jacques Chirac, a man who has bestrode his country's political scene for longer than any other European politician. Chirac was the prime minister of France when Harold Wilson occupied Downing Street, Bill Clinton was an ambitious Arkansas wannabe, and Helmut Kohl was a minor provincial politician in Germany.
Chirac is all physical contact " a face that breaks into a wide grin of enthusiasm, hands that stretch out to touch flesh, and a need to consume food and drink without adding pounds as his energy burns away the beer he always drinks at the endless meals around which Europe's leaders decide the future of the EU.
France has had five presidents since de Gaulle took control of the country at the end of the unhappy Fourth Republic in 1958. The first four left a transformed France. And then Jacques Chirac was elected in 1995. As he looks back on 10 years in office, what has been achieved? Pas beaucoup. Not since pre-war days has France had such an unhappy decade. Growth has been inadequate. Corporatist protectionism has helped those with contacts or state jobs, but left permanent, enduring high unemployment.
Paris or Cannes are spectacular to visit. But leave the autoroutes for a medium-sized French town with its chronic unemployment and welfare dependency, or go to the social housing estates where 5 million French Muslims exist miserably, and a very different France " immobile, unmodernised, and without clear direction or purpose can be found.
In politics, Chirac broke the first rule of power " keep it " when he accepted the advice of his closest adviser, Dominique de Villepin, and dissolved Parliament in 1997, He hoped to get a clear right-wing majority. He ended up with a Socialist government which imposed a straight-jacket law on working time, leaving France's labour market without room to manoeuvre in the new globalised economy. Many small French cities and towns now depend on their daily flights from EasyJet and Ryanair, and the money that half a million Brits with second homes in France pump into rural economies. …