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France's Embattled Chirac Defends Legacy in Bastille Day Speech

Lisa Bryant

Jacques Chirac, center, surrounded by mounted Republican Guards, waves to  crowd as he rides down Champs Elysees
French President Jacques Chirac announced Thursday new efforts to boost research and technology in France and battle the country's soaring unemployment. Mr. Chirac's televised remarks, made during his traditional Bastille Day interview, come at a time when the French leader's popularity ratings are at historic lows.

Responding to the questions of two French reporters in the garden of the Elysee Presidential Palace, Mr. Chirac offered a vigorous defense of his embattled government and of his own legacy after 10 years as president.

He denied he was a weakened leader, after a series of political setbacks in recent weeks, including French voters' rejection of the European constitution in a referendum May 29.

Mr. Chirac said he did not feel humiliated that the referendum he announced exactly a year ago was defeated. He said such referendums were necessary to reinforce French democracy.

The referendum is only one in a string of blows suffered by France's 72-year-old leader. From sparring bitterly with Britain over the EU budget, to France's dismal 10 percent unemployment rate, to the defeat of Paris' bid to host the 2012 Olympic games, these recent weeks have shaped into a season of discontent for France and for its president. A poll taken this week found that six out of 10 French had lost faith in Mr. Chirac's ability to lead the country.

Mr. Chirac said French people were questioning their place in the 21st century, and that the government needs to answer those questions in a positive way. He laid out a list of political priorities, including fighting unemployment and promoting research and technology in a number of fields, including the energy sector.

Earlier in the day, Mr. Chirac attended the annual Bastille Day military parade on the Champs Elysees with visiting Brazilian President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva. The high security alert in the French capital - reinforced by 5,000 police officers - underscored European jitters a week after the terrorist attacks in London.

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