PARIS — On May 13, Jacques Chirac will celebrate the 13th anniversary of his first election to the presidency of the French Republic. Will he run for office again in 2007?

By then he will be 75, an age that seems rather old for the job. But he only feels at ease when he’s active. He constantly travels abroad meeting heads of state, and he still loves shaking hands with the average man in the street and greeting women and children with a kiss. It is difficult to imagine him happily retired.

Added to this is the fact that once his presidential tenure ends his loss of legal immunity will open the door to judicial inquiries into his use of taxpayer funds to finance his party.

Ultimately, however, the answer to whether he will seek re-election will largely depend on his popularity in two years’ time. Until recently he managed to keep a comfortable edge over his rivals in the polls, mostly thanks to his opposition to the Iraqi war and to American pressure in general. But a recent poll revealed that his critics now outnumber his followers, and that only 27 percent of those surveyed wanted to see him run again.

This change in voter sentiment is in part explained by the popularity of Nicolas Sarkozy, chairman of the ruling party, who has stated he may challenge Chirac in 2007.

Another factor is the looming May 29 referendum on the European Constitution. In reality this vote is aimed more at the French situation in general than the treaty itself. If the “no” camp wins, as is generally expected, it will be a major setback not only for the European Union but also for Chirac, who called for the referendum.

Chirac could have spared himself this trial if he had opted to ratify the treaty by a parliamentary vote rather than a referendum. Fifteen EU member-countries opted for this “shoe-in” choice, including Germany, Italy, Sweden, Austria, Hungary, the three Baltic states and Belgium.

Why didn’t Chirac follow their example? When he made his decision last July, the polls showed 64 percent of the French electorate supported the draft constitution. Chirac apparently thought that a resounding referendum victory would improve his own political prospects and erase the negative effects of his party’s defeats in the 2004 regional, cantonal and European elections. In addition, he believed that a referendum would exacerbate the internal divisions plaguing the Socialist Party.

Socialist leader Francois Hollande, an avowed backer of the Yes camp, had organized a referendum among the rank and file in December, which he won easily. How is it, then, that a large majority of the left is now in the No camp?

Two years before a presidential election in which the Socialists have a good chance of winning, one cannot underestimate the weight of personal ambitions. Hollande’s rapid ascension has led some influential rivals to ignore the party’s consigns and campaign openly for the No camp. Among them are former Prime Minister Laurent Fabius, former party head Henri Emmanuelli and some gifted but impatient young militants. Needless to say, the impact of this rift on the Socialist Party has been disastrous.

But even these internal party quarrels don’t provide the main explanation for the growth in the No camp. In a nutshell, a majority of French voters are growing increasingly dissatisfied with the way things are going in France. One poll shows Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin’s popularity has fallen to just 35 percent; another indicates just 28 percent support.

Despite a government promise to create jobs, France’s unemployment rate has risen to 10.1 percent — twice the British figure — and among people in their 20s the rate of unemployment doubles. Exacerbating this situation is the recent elimination of quotas on Chinese textile imports, which has threatened the existence of an entire sector of the French economy. And social unrest has led the government to backpedal on various reforms that could improve the situation in the long term.

As things stand, it will be a miracle if the Yes camp wins the referendum, and yet a victory of the No camp will open a period of crisis and confusion, which will in turn weaken both the leadership Paris exercises in the European Union as well as the cooperation it has established with countries like Germany, Belgium and Spain.

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