The Australian – Birthday brings little to cheer about for Chirac, by Emma-Kate Symons, Paris

IT was the kind of birthday present politicians have nightmares about. As he turned 73 yesterday, and after 10 years as President, Jacques Chirac awoke to perhaps the most devastating headline of his career.

“Jacques Chirac – the difficult end of his reign” announced Le Monde, France’s most influential daily, in an extraordinary media intervention that read more like an obituary than a birthday notice.

As the front-page report noted, 72per cent of voters believe the head of state has hardly any influence over public affairs, either in France or the rest of the world.

“It is the winter of his reign … there is a wind of panic in the ruling party … power has moved across the Seine from the Elysee to Matignon (where Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin works),” the newspaper said….

One parliamentarian from the ruling centre-right Government was quoted as saying: “For me, Chirac died live on television” in April, when he tried and failed abysmally to convince young people to vote yes for the EU constitution in the referendum.

While Mr Chirac struggles for survival – and his protege, Mr de Villepin, and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy fight it out for the presidential nomination – it is France that is in the grip of a profound malaise.

Strikes are an almost daily occurrence. Last week, it was transport workers and university graduates complaining of exploitation in France’s harsh intern system. Yesterday, thousands of restaurateurs brought Paris to a standstill as they marched to demand a tax cut.

The only politician with a grand plan and enduring popularity is Mr Sarkozy, the tough-talking son of immigrants who frequently says the French social model has failed.

France is in dire straits and “Sarko” may be the only hope for the future.

It almost makes you feel sorry for the man. It reminds me of Canada, really, this line:

But since his record high popularity levels during the run-up to the Iraq war, when Mr Chirac defied the US and Britain and led the Western opposition to the invasion, it has been all downhill.

It’s easy to be popular when you’re running against the US. It unites people, to be against something big like that. Canada’s been doing it for decades. So has Fidel Castro, for that matter. Unfortunately, France isn’t close enough to the US to keep it up. When all the indignation faded away, all they had was the usual transit strikes and high taxes.

Well, joyeux anniversaires anyway, Jacques.