French president stays silent on election plans

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PARIS, Dec 21 (Reuters) French President Jacques Chirac promised on Sunday to play a full part in the forthcoming presidential election debate, but gave no indication of whether he would stand for an unprecedented third term in office.

In his traditional end of year address to the nation, Chirac said France was facing a vital year and needed an open, democratic debate about its future.

''I will be fully engaged in it,'' he said in his televised speech, promising that his government would remain hard at work right up to the April 22 ballot.

The president has consistently refused to rule out a possible re-election bid, saying that he will only reveal his hand in the first three months of 2007.

Languishing in the opinion polls after almost 12 years in power, Chirac is highly unlikely to seek re-election, but by keeping quiet about his future he hopes to avoid becoming an irrelevance on the political stage.

His reticence has proved an irritant to Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who today secured for himself the presidential nomination of the ruling party, the conservative Union for a Popular Movement (UMP).

Chirac, 74, spelt out what he thought were the major election issues facing France, saying the country had to remain united behind its traditional humanist values, defend the environment and battle for economic and social progress.

He also said everyone in France should have the right to a house and urged his government to do more in this area.

''Yes, we can be proud to be French. Let us follow our modernisation efforts (and) not try to imitate others. Let us be ourselves,'' he said.

''Next Spring, you will have a decisive choice to make. Let your convictions live intensely,'' he said, urging voters not to listen to extremists.

In the 2002 presidential vote, far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen stunned France when he won through to the second round run off after beating the Socialist party candidate.

Chirac eventually trounced him, but the result was seen as a triumph for the extreme right and opinion polls suggest Le Pen will put in another strong performance in April.

Chirac has never forgiven Sarkozy for siding with a rightist rival in the 1995 presidential election and political analysts believe he is unlikely to throw his weight fully behind him.

Opinion polls show Sarkozy running neck-and-neck with Socialist party candidate Segolene Royal, who is bidding to become France's first woman president and has wowed voters with her youthful, glamorous appearance.

Reuters DH VP0200

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