L'Etat? C'est Moi. Not. Jacques Chirac's Time Has Come-And Gone. French Ask: Why Doesn't He Do a De Gaulle and Step Down?

Article excerpt

Byline: Tracy McNicoll and Christopher Dickey

Revolutions aside, France on Bastille Day looks a lot like a monarchy. The head of state reviews his troops under the Arc de Triomphe and waves beneficently to crowds along the Champs-Elysees. Fighter jets scream overhead and brass bands play. Then he adjourns to his palace for a garden party and a sit-down television interview: a sort of State of the Union address with questions.

This year 72-year-old Jacques Chirac, though visibly worn, remained regally aloof in the face of his interrogators. Yes, France rejected the European constitution in his ill-conceived referendum. And the International Olympic Committee rejected France for the 2012 Games. "I did not feel humiliated," said Chirac. He might as well have said, a la Richard Nixon, "I am not a crook."

When a president starts talking like that, the public starts thinking "lame duck" and "how much longer?" The answer, in Chirac's case, is almost 22 months, but a new poll already shows that 43 percent of the French hope he will "involve himself less and less" in the country's key issues. His approval ratings are down in the 30s or 20s, depending on the pollsters. "What purpose does the head of state serve?" asked the weekly L'Express recently. In a country used to thinking that the head of state in many ways is France--"L'etat c'est moi" --the notion of a lame duck seems unsettling, subversive, even dangerous. Yet after his four decades at the top of national politics, many analysts agree: Chirac and France are parting ways.

And how. "There is an absolute divorce between him and French society," says Dominique Moisi of the French Institute of International Relations. And not exactly an amicable one, either. "If the uncoupling today is so violent," L'Express declared in an unsparing analysis, "it is because never, since 1962 and peace in Algeria, has a president of the Fifth Republic had so many national failures to confront, so many means at his disposal with which to avoid them and so many negatives on his balance sheet." Yet Chirac acts like a man who doesn't know his wife has moved out. Asked last week who he thought was most likely to succeed him, the president smiled widely and replied, "I think that subject is altogether premature."

In fact, his two most likely successors, at least on the political right, are now in his cabinet, running unannounced but utterly unconcealed campaigns for 2007. "France grumbles, and its princes try to amuse the spectators by tripping each other up," editorialized Le Monde. "What a disquieting image of the fin de regne !" Matters have descended to such a state that Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy no longer bothers to cloak his criticisms of the president in witty repartee. "Do you believe France has any chance of solving its 2005 problems with 50-year-old ideas?" Sarkozy asked a crowd last week. "Those ideas have been used 100 times, and 100 times they've failed." Sarkozy didn't even tune in to the presidential interview on Thursday. Instead, he held court with journalists at his own garden party at the Interior Ministry, across the street from Chirac's Elysee Palace.

Dominique de Villepin, the new prime minister and loyal Chirac protege often seen as his anointed heir, has also begun distancing himself from the president. …