Delusions of Grandeur; French President Jacques Chirac Has Made a Career Appealing to the Glories of His Country's Past. but His People Are Wondering If He Knows How to Lead Them into the Future

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Byline: Christopher Dickey and Eric Pape (With Tracy McNicoll in Sarran)

Deep in rural France, the ancient village of Sarran (population: 300) boasts a strange museum. It's a 4 million euro building, constructed at the expense of today's French and European taxpayers, and very modern, to be sure. But its spirit harks back to the cabinets de curiosite of the 18th century, in which the great dilettantes of the French Enlightenment accumulated vast eccentric collections that often revealed the hidden corners of their minds. Sarran's cabinet is all about French President Jacques Chirac, who traces his family roots and his political origins to this region of Correze.

One of the most notable bits of inventory is the sumo-wrestling collection: figurines, posters, a belt and other tokens of that martial art for light-footed behemoths. To explain his passion for sumo, Chirac once cited a description of the sport as less about contact than contemplating the adversary: when the big moves finally come, the action is so fast that "victory is achieved before we've had the time to know how." Several of Chirac's political rivals have felt that way over the years. "Maybe if I'd started young, I could have done sumo," the 6-foot-3 French president once mused in an interview with the sports newspaper l'Equipe. "I had the necessary height. And the weight? That can be put on."

In fact, the 72-year-old Chirac has spent most of his career fighting above his weight--and that of France. At home, he would head-fake his opponents, becoming a left-wing right-wing politician, never letting rivals know for sure where he was going, and hoping they'd lunge in the wrong direction. Often they did. To project himself and his middleweight country on the global scene, he picked big adversaries, notably the United States. And he bulked up by claiming to speak for the vast majority of Europeans. Sometimes the technique worked. Even if Chirac's opposition to the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 was obstructive, divisive and ultimately ineffective, it marked one of the high points of his popularity at home. Most French citizens still think he represents their country well abroad.

Yet after 40 years in politics and 10 as president, Chirac's footwork has gone flat. The public is weary of his bobbing and weaving, and deeply wary of his promises. A decade ago, for instance, he came to office vowing to cut the unemployment rate, which stood at 11.4 percent. Now it's 10.2 and headed back up. On May 29, when the French will vote in a referendum on the new European constitution, polls show they may well say, "Non!" And while the race remains too close to call, there's no question many of those ballots will be cast as much against the president as the document. A recent poll shows 72 percent of French adults wouldn't want him to run for another term in 2007; 57 percent give his last decade of leadership bad marks.

At Sarran's Musee du President Jacques Chirac, there's a huge, ugly stuffed fish, a coelacanth, "often called a living fossil," according to a nearby plaque. The aging Chirac, with his fixation on the glories of the French past, has come to be seen in much the same light. Gilles Delafon, coauthor of a book on Chirac's relations with the United States, describes him as "the last dinosaur of the Fifth Republic," heir to the conservative, centralizing politics and imperious presidential system put in place by Charles de Gaulle in 1958. And indeed he seems ever more out of touch with his people as they try to cope with the demands of a fast-changing global economy.

Uncertainty about the future runs deep in France. Burning questions go unresolved. How, for instance, should the country integrate, assimilate or even accommodate its large and growing population of Muslim immigrants? How can France reform its educational system so that what students learn prepares them for the gritty combat of the global marketplace? …