With Chirac in hospital, potential successors take front and center
PARIS – Jacques Chirac’s hospitalization for a vascular problem in his eye has been described as minor, but it appears to have galvanized possible successors and caused a media uproar about the naked ambitions of Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.The 72-year-old president, who has clocked more than four decades in politics, seems less likely than ever to run for re-election in 2007.Chirac, primed on the notions of grandeur dear to his mentor Charles de Gaulle, has always left open the possibility of seeking a third term, a way to gain leverage over rivals.But the president has been weakened in recent years by a series of political setbacks, most recently the “no” victory in France’s May 29 referendum on the European constitution. The president had staked his political honor on passage. Now, he is as politically vulnerable as he has ever been.That Chirac was hospitalized just as his party was holding its annual summer meeting added to the symbolism and gave new weight to internal rivalries. The jockeying was highlighted by a public show of differences between Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, Chirac’s protege, and Sarkozy, the government’s pugnacious No. 2 who has openly eyed the presidency for several years.Chirac’s health “makes his political future more difficult,” said Pascal Perrineau, a political analyst with the Center for the Study of French Political Life. “It reminds people he is in his seventies and makes it highly improbable that he will run for president again. … This accelerates the campaign.”Chirac was hospitalized Friday night at Val de Grace military hospital for what doctors said was a “small vascular accident” that troubled his vision in one eye. A medical update Monday said he showed “very favorable” progress with his condition receding. He is expected to be released after a week’s stay. No update was planned for Tuesday because “everything is going as expected,” said Dr. Anne Robert, chief doctor of the Army health service.The French press has been extremely critical of what it said was the slow trickle of news on the state of Chirac’s health.The head of the French Council of the Order of Doctors said in an interview to be published in Wednesday’s La Croix, a Roman Catholic daily, that doctors did not write Chirac’s health updates.”These statements, presented as medical, are in fact texts devised by the patient, those close to him, his aides,” Jacques Roland was quoted as saying. He said they are read by doctors, thus making them “authentic.”Roland did not provide the source of his information, noting that French doctors are sworn to medical secrecy.In a statement late Tuesday that appeared to respond to such allegations, Val de Grace said the hospital had prepared the updates “at the express request of the patient.”Doctors not treating the French president said the cause of a problem like Chirac’s could range from a ruptured blood vessel to a stroke, which is often connected to vision trouble.French presidents have traditionally been secretive about their health. The late President Francois Mitterrand for years hid from the nation the prostate cancer that killed him in 1996.”In France, we practice a cult of secrecy which would have made the Kremlin proud in the former Soviet Union,” Le Monde newspaper wrote in a Tuesday editorial.The presidential Elysee Palace worked this week to counter negative fallout, making efforts to show an active Chirac at work despite his illness.On Tuesday, the president held a telephone conversation with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder to discuss issues of the day, including Turkish membership in the European Union, according to spokesman Jerome Bonnafont. The phone call replaced a scheduled lunch in Germany.However, Chirac cannot use the phone to replace a series of foreign trips scheduled through the end of the year – a period he had announced in August would be “very, very, very active.” And he cannot – for the first time since 1995 – preside over Wednesday’s Cabinet meeting, to be held, exceptionally, at the office of the prime minister.Above all, the president cannot tame rivalries among top cohorts that burst forth in his absence.Sarkozy, the country’s most popular politician, has dogged the Chirac-Villepin team. In a speech to the party faithful Sunday in the Atlantic resort town of La Baule, the interior minister vowed that “nothing, really nothing, nobody, really nobody, will stop me from completing the mission that you have set for me.”Villepin, stressing his long-standing loyalty, has portrayed himself as Chirac’s direct heir.”This reinforces the idea that many of us already had that Chirac could not stand (for re-election) again in 2007,” said Bruno Jeanbart, assistant director of the CSA polling agency. He said, however, that the president “can stay in his function without a problem” because his health did not appear to be seriously at risk. “French people are always very discreet about the health of their politicians.”Some note the unusual political comeback of former Defense Minister Jean-Pierre Chevenement, who spent a week in a coma in 1998 at Val de Grace, fully recovering and running for the presidency in 2002.—Associated Press writer Sophie Nicholson contributed to this story.
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