Chirac Leaving Stage Admired and Scorned

The Associated Press
Sunday, March 11, 2007; 11:33 PM

PARIS -- Jacques Chirac, admired and scorned during 12 years as France's president, announced Sunday he will not seek a third term in elections this spring _ a widely expected move given his low popularity, his age and a conservative rival who has siphoned off his political base.

In a televised address, Chirac said he would find new ways to serve his country after leaving office: "Serving France, and serving peace, is what I have committed my whole life to."

Most on the French right Chirac once dominated and in the party founded for his re-election in 2002 have swung behind Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, leaving Chirac with no political base for another run in the April-May two-round presidential vote.

But Chirac, 74, has pulled surprises in the past and he kept France guessing as long as possible about whether he will run again _ seemingly to avoid becoming a lame duck too soon.

Chirac leaves a legacy as mixed and ambiguous as the man himself.

He made less of a mark on France than Gen. Charles de Gaulle, his role model, or his immediate predecessor, Socialist Francois Mitterrand.

But internationally, the repercussions of Chirac's defiant "Non!" to the war on Iraq, which forced President Bush to invade in 2003 without United Nations backing, still echo.

So, too, does another "Non!" of the Chirac era _ that of French voters who rejected Europe's drive toward greater integration in 2005.

Some accused the French leader of derailing European ambitions, since it was he who put the issue to a referendum. For many, it is among the biggest blemishes on the record of a statesman who occasionally seemed to be more concerned about problems abroad than at home.

Chirac's acknowledgment of the French state's guilt in the Nazi extermination of Jews in World War II was historic. But economically, few French say they are better off than they were in 1995, when crowds splashed in Paris fountains to celebrate Chirac's come-from-behind election win.

In his address, Chirac urged France to believe in itself.

"We have so many trump cards," he said. "We must not fear the world's evolution. This new world, we must embrace it. We must continue to put our mark on it."

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