Chirac to say goodbye to France

Updated: 2007-05-15 23:35

PARIS - French President Jacques Chirac ends his last full day in office Tuesday with a farewell address to a nation he has led for 12 years, and that he leaves in a state of malaise about its place in the global economy and world affairs.

The debonair 74-year-old turns over power Wednesday to tough-talking fellow conservative Nicolas Sarkozy, a protege-turned-rival who won election on pledges of a break with the past.

France's President Jacques Chirac (L) shakes hands with Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin at the Elysee Palace in Paris after his resignation May 15, 2007. [Reuters]

It's a poignant moment for Chirac, closing out four decades as a fixture in French politics without leaving an obvious heir. One of his most die-hard loyalists, Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin, submitted his resignation Tuesday after a bruising two years as premier that saw his own presidential ambitions shrivel.

After he hands the reins to Sarkozy, Chirac's attentions will turn to a new foundation aimed at capitalizing on his international reputation.

Aides say the foundation, similar to that of former U.S. President Bill Clinton, would focus on sustainable development and dialogue between cultures, with a particular emphasis on Africa. It is to be launched later this year.

France's incumbent President Jacques Chirac (L) shakes hands with Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin at the Elysee Palace in Paris after his resignation May 15, 2007. [Reuters]

Chirac sought to bring environmental issues into the spotlight during his presidency, though critics say he had more words than action on the subject. He often stressed cultural understanding over exporting Western values _ a stance that Sarkozy distanced himself from in an election-night speech in which he said France would stand beside those oppressed by fundamentalism.

France's relations with Africa are likely to be less close and more pragmatic with the departure of Chirac, who nurtured ties with former French colonies in Africa _ and was criticized for cozying up to authoritarian African leaders. Sarkozy has few of those connections.

Chirac often shone brighter on the world stage than at home, where he failed to push through many of his promised reforms.

His farewell also opens Chirac up to possible questioning by investigators probing corruption allegations that have gathered dust while he enjoyed presidential immunity.

French President-elect Sarkozy escorts French union FO general secretary Mailly after a meeting in Paris. [AP]

Stepping down from the presidency, Chirac will be closing out a rich political career. Chirac founded the neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic party, today transformed into the Union for a Popular Movement, or UMP, that Sarkozy headed before being elected president on May 6.

The outgoing president built up the mainstream right into a powerful political machine that, along with the Socialist Party, are the dominating forces in French politics. His ambitious search for funds for his party is at the heart of the corruption allegations implicating him, involving illegal party financing.

Chirac said his goodbye to Europe on a visit to Berlin May 3. At his last big EU gathering in March, he insisted on the need for a strong role for Europe in a "multipolar" world _ an issue that was a mainstay of foreign policy under Chirac. He most famously pressed the idea in leading opposition to the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Chirac also famously misjudged French voters by staging a referendum on the European constitution that he had championed in 2005. The French and Dutch rejections of the treaty have stalled European integration efforts since.

French newspapers published testimonials Tuesday to Chirac's mixed legacy. The cover of left-leaning Liberation, long critical of the conservative president, showed Chirac's hand waving from car window under the headline "Chirac Gets Away."

The only other president to issue a televised farewell to the nation was Valery Giscard d'Estaing, on May 19, 1981, before turning over power to Socialist President Francois Mitterrand. With a much remembered final "au revoir," Giscard stood, made an exit and left an empty chair in the spotlight.

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