ECB Chief Announces Date of His Departure; All Together Now: French Candidate Jean-Claude Trichet Is Heir Apparent

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European Central Bank chief Wim Duisenberg yesterday ended months of speculation by saying he would step down in July next year, three years before his term ends and leaving French candidate Jean-Claude Trichet as heir apparent.

Mr Trichet, governor of the Bank of France, has long been France's candidate for ECB President, but there is doubt whether he can take the job before he is cleared over his role in the near-demise of Credit Lyonnais bank in the early 1990s.

Mr Duisenberg's unscheduled announcement ended uncertainty about the timing of his departure but it raises the daunting prospect of prolonged horse-trading among EU governments, similar to that which marred the Dutchman's own appointment in 1998.

Mr Duisenberg, who has always said he would not serve out his full eight year term, said the decision to step down on July 9, 2003 - his 68th birthday - was purely personal.

'I hope to be 68 on that day and I am inclined to say enough is enough,' hesaid. 'The decision is fully in line with my intentions which I stated when I accepted this assignment. …