By Henry Samuel in Paris
President Jacques Chirac celebrated Bastille Day yesterday by insisting that France had no need to “envy or copy” Britain.
Whether the point of comparison was food, health, education or science, France was in far better shape than its old rival, he said.
Jacques Chirac in Paris
President Jacques Chirac, surrounded by Republican Guards, waves to the crowds lining the Champs Elysées
Mr Chirac, embattled by a run of crushing defeats and record low ratings in the polls, had clearly decided that the best form of defence was attack.
“I have a lot of esteem for the British people and for Tony Blair,” he said. “But I do not believe that the British social model is a model that we should copy or envy.”
In his annual Bastille Day television interview he did concede that unemployment was lower in Britain than in France, where it is running at more than 10 per cent. But in public health and tackling poverty the French were “much better placed than the British”, he said.
France put a higher percentage of its national wealth into education and scientific research than Britain, Mr Chirac added – “So I don’t envy their model.”
His remarks were in stark contrast to recent comments by his popular interior minister and bitter rival, Nicolas Sarkozy, who extolled the “Anglo-Saxon model” Mr Chirac so reviles.
Mr Sarkozy even dared to ask out loud whether it was “France that is wrong and the world that is right”.
Mr Chirac’s response was not only a rebuff to Mr Sarkozy but also part of a concerted campaign to restore French pride at a time of national soul-searching and gloom.
His tub-thumping included French cuisine, which he said undoubtedly played a part in the nation’s exceptionally high life expectancy.
An interviewer, referring to Mr Chirac’s recent disparaging comments about British food, asked whether he really did consider it the world’s worst.
“No, no, I did not say that,” he replied, a factually correct answer as far as it went, as he had put British cooking second from bottom, above Finland.
Next in Mr Chirac’s litany of praise came his country’s birth rate, the highest in Europe with Ireland’s, and its status as the world’s “second agricultural power”.
He reiterated his refusal to make “the slightest concession” on the Common Agricultural Policy, which the Prime Minister argues is in need of urgent reform because it takes up 40 per cent of the EU budget.
Behind all Mr Chirac’s macho chest-beating hides a man struggling to salvage his reputation. More and more, the French are wondering how he can carry on as president for two more years when the polls show that fewer than one person in three trusts him.
Asked whether he was worried that France was tired of him, Mr Chirac said: “It is up to the French to decide, not me.” He said he had carried out his duties as he thought best.
He even left his options open about running for a third term in 2007, saying that he would respond “at the appropriate time”.
Mr Chirac’s international credibility has suffered serious damage since French voters’ rejection of the European constitution, his bruising clash with Mr Blair over Europe and the failure of Paris to win the race to hold the Olympic Games in 2012. But he remained bullish.
“When I am outside France, I absolutely do not feel on the defensive,” he said. “I feel sure of myself.”
The president played down reports that Mr Sarkozy had tartly suggested scrapping the traditional July 14 interview because most people would be “at the beach”.
The annual television appearance was “without doubt of interest,” Mr Chirac ruminated. “It is always good to launch debates.”
Before the interview, the president and guests, including Sir John Holmes, the British ambassador to France, observed two minutes’ silence in memory of the victims of the London bombings last Thursday.
“No country is sheltered from terrorist attacks,” Mr Chirac said.
He was flanked at the Bastille Day military parade on the Champs Elysées by his guest of honour, President Luiz Ignacio Lula da Silva, of Brazil.
Thousands of people lined the streets as French jet fighters roared over, leaving a trail of red, white and blue, followed by Brazilian Tucano aircraft trailing the yellow and green of Brazil’s flag to mark the year of “Brazil in France”.
Security was tight to ward off any possible terrorist attacks, with more than 5,000 police officers patrolling the capital.