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Bastille Day Evaluation: Chirac Gets Mixed Marks - 2003-07-14

France celebrated Bastille Day Monday with picnics, fireworks and a traditional military parade down the Champs Elysees in Paris. Monday's national holiday also offered a preliminary report card of sorts for French President Jacques Chirac.

Security was tight during the morning military parade down the Champs Elysees in Paris, with almost 5,000 policemen on hand. Last year's Bastille Day was marred by an apparent assassination attempt targeting President Chirac. This year, authorities took no chances.

National and international crises marked the first year of Mr. Chirac's second term in office. Earlier in the year, the French president weathered rocky diplomatic relations with the United States over his staunch opposition to the war in Iraq but basked in widespread popular approval of that policy in France.

The president's approval ratings have since tumbled, partly because of new, domestic reforms pushed by his center-right government. A series of strikes against pension reforms paralyzed French public transportation and other public services in recent months. The French parliament nonetheless passed the pension reform legislation.

Then came strikes by French performing artists over plans to cut their unemployment benefits. Many prestigious arts festivals have since been canceled.

And last week, Corsicans defied Mr. Chirac, and voted against a plan to grant the Mediterranean island wider governing powers.

In his traditional, televised Bastille Day interview, Mr. Chirac warned his people not to resist change.

The French president said France must not allow itself to be bypassed by world events, but rather must adapt to the changes. In particular, he said, French people must stop assuming the government provides all the answers. He suggested the French need to adjust themselves psychologically to major decentralization measures being proposed by the government.

Mr. Chirac's nationally televised interview was his first in four months, and marked the president's most thorough defense of his prime minister, and the proposed domestic reforms.

But the French president also touched on European issues. He refused to comment on the controversial debut of Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi as the head of the European Union. But he did suggest that the EU's three percent budget deficit cap should be softened. France again risks surpassing that cap.

Mr. Chirac also reiterated his call for the United Nations, and not the United States, to head Iraq's postwar reconstruction.

The notion of having any country play world policeman is over, Mr. Chirac said. He said current international problems - from poverty to environmental degradation - demand a global authority.

With Mr. Chirac's re-election last May, beating far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen by a landslide, and with his center-right UMP party controlling the parliament, the French president is in a very strong position to leave his mark on what could be his last term in office. Some analysts praise Mr. Chirac and his government for embarking on bold reforms. But critics suggest Mr. Chirac's second term has so far produced few, positive achievements.