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JACQUES IN THE BOX

CAREER GRAPH
1995: Takes over as President from Francois Mitterrand

1977 to 1995: Is the mayor of Paris

1974-76, 1986-88: Is elected Prime Minister of France

Late 1960s: Becomes a minister

1932: Chirac is born, on November 29.

For a man who likes sumo wrestling, life is all about getting out of tight spots. Still, Jacques Chirac should have paid heed to the words he once uttered about his favourite sport. Sumo wrestling is not so much about contact, the French President had said, as about knowing one’s adversary. “When the big move finally comes,” he explained, “the action is so fast that victory is achieved before we’ve had time to know how.”

The big move came at Chirac’s expense last weekend when the French vetoed the European Union’s constitution. Clearly, Chirac had failed to contemplate his adversary. He had seen some resistance ' maybe even a few hard knocks ' but had miscalculated the force of the opposition.

He should have seen it coming, for these are not the best of times in France. Unemployment is at over 10 per cent and the economy is slowing down. Not surprisingly, the French voted against a constitution that they thought signalled control from Brussels. The country that gave birth to the idea of Europe had opted out, and many blamed Chirac for the outcome. Despite Chirac’s pleas, the referendum turned out to be a verdict against the French President.

That was ironical, for many believe that Chirac had opted for the referendum purely to bolster his own popularity. The move backfired, for opinion polls conducted after the vote show that 72 per cent of the people don’t want Chirac back for a third term in 2007.

But, then, when you are a fan of sumo wrestling, you need some sharp survival instincts. And, at 72, Chirac is not a man used to losing. He has replaced the old PM ' the unpopular Jean-Pierre Raffarin ' with the more charismatic Dominique de Villepin, and has promised that the ratification process would carry on.

Chirac’s survival skills need no honing, for he has the knack of re-inventing himself to suit the political mood. In 2002, before he was re-elected President, he effectively countered a threat posed by right-wing leader Jean-Marie Le Pen by promising that law and order ' one of Le Pen’s pet subjects ' would be a central issue in the campaign. Shortly after his re-election he appointed right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy as his law and order minister.

Then, barely six months after becoming President in 1995, he conducted a nuclear test in the Pacific that caused an environmental uproar. Chirac promptly turned green, and pledged France’s support for a comprehensive test ban. He also earned brownie points by speaking out against President George W. Bush who had refused to ratify the Kyoto Protocol on greenhouse emissions. No wonder they called him La Girouette ' the weathervane.

Like the weathervane, Chirac has had his turns. The son of a company director, Chirac’s childhood was a comfortable one. But he showed the first sign of promise when he was expelled from school for shooting paper wads at a teacher. He dabbled in socialism in his youth, and even sold the Communist newspaper L’Humanite on the streets for a while. Inspired by General de Gaulle, he moved into politics and public life ' finally making it to the President’s seat in 1995.

Accusations of corruption and vote-rigging have all passed him by in his long run as President. Chirac was the charmer, the one with the hearty beam, the passion for France, the love for all things beautiful, the aristocratic wife Bernadette, the lovely daughters and the lap dog Sumo. He was the one who could stand up to George Bush and take a stand on Iraq. Even Tony Blair’s little son, Leo, apparently succumbed to his charm and sent a signed photograph of himself to his favourite “Uncle Jacques”, a photograph shown off cleverly by Chirac at a press conference in Downing Street to soften the tension between the two leaders over the war on Iraq.

Chirac ' with Dominique de Villepin, known for his rousing speeches at the UN against the war in Iraq ' became the poster boy for the anti-war movement in Europe. As the Americans threw French wines and French fries off their menu, Chirac’s popularity at home reached dizzying heights. But it was short-lived. Unemployment and the economy were to haunt the President, as was the collapsing spending power and the unpopularity of the government’s programme of reforms.

A few months ago, Chirac may have been dreaming of a few more years at the Elys'e Palace. Today, that seems remote. Unless of course, the man for all seasons reinvents himself once again. Or, as the sumo wrestler would do: contemplate the adversary.

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