Chirac Vows to Stay `President of All the French': Expected to Run Again despite Government of `Cohabitation'

Article excerpt

PARIS - Before the annual summer stupor paralyzed French political life, President Jacques Chirac delivered one of the most unequivocal statements of his career.

He will not bow to pressure to shorten his term in office and will not resign, he said. He considers his partnership with the Socialist prime minister "constructive," and despite myriad difficulties he will remain "president of all the French."

Reading between the lines of his long Bastille Day statement of July 14, French pundits concluded the Mr. Chirac plans to seek another seven-year term when his current one expires in 2002.

Given the dwindling ranks of his conservative supporters, plus accusations of corruption and "abuse of influence" tarnishing some of his associates and backers, Mr. Chirac's chances for another term appear iffy.

Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's popularity is impressively high and stable. And Mr. Jospin, who lost his bid for the presidency against Mr. Chirac in 1995, has not given up hope of moving into the elegant Elysee Palace as president after a successful run as prime minister.

This is the time of the year when the Mediterranean and Atlantic beaches are crowded. Parisians are fleeing the capital's noise and pollution, while an armada of foreign tourists prepares to take their place.

For hoteliers, restaurant owners and tour operators, this will be the "vintage year of the century." At least 70 million foreign visitors are expected, confirming France as the world's leading tourist attraction.

Perhaps justifiably, the French prefer "chez nous" (their own country) to foreign parts: Only 25 percent of French vacationers travel abroad. And 31 percent of those traveling domestically plan to stay with family or friends rather than in hotels.

The summer brought bad news for those hoping to visit spas: The cradle-to-coffin French welfare state will no longer pay for ther-mal-bath treatment of backache, varicose veins, obesity, stress and unrequited love.

The decision caused panic in the 96 registered "thermal spas," including world renown Vichy and Evian-les-Bains, whose mayors estimate they will lose close to 650,000 French "curistes" who used to rely on the state's largesse.

Meanwhile, labor unions, employers and senior executives are locked in a seemingly endless debate about whether the progressively introduced 35-hour work week is a good or bad thing for France. Martine Aubry, minister of labor, claims the new law will be fully applied by big and small companies by the year 2002. He says it has already saved 57,000 jobs in this country suffering from a 12 percent unemployment rate - which translates to more than 4 million jobless.

MEDEF, one of the employers' associations, claims the real figure is closer to 15,000 jobs.

Labor unions say 35,000 jobs have been saved or created in companies already observing the shorter working week. …