HOSPITALISED presidents make the French uneasy. Franois Mitterrand hid his cancer behind false medical reports for over a decade until his first operation, in 1992; he died four years later. Georges Pompidou's cancer became public only after his death from it while in office. So the news that President Jacques Chirac was to spend a full week in hospital, after a “small vascular incident” in the brain which affected his vision, prompted much speculation about the 72-year-old's health. If the problem is as minor as officials say, in formal terms nothing should change. But, symbolically, everything has.
Even before his hospitalisation, Mr Chirac had become politically enfeebled after the French rejected the European Union constitution in May. At the same time, his new prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, has been growing in stature. This week, that impression intensified, as Mr de Villepin chaired the weekly cabinet meeting usually presided over by Mr Chirac. More than ever, the Chirac era seems to be drawing to a close. And two of the men competing hardest to offer a fresh alternative are from his own Gaullist political family: Mr de Villepin and Nicolas Sarkozy, an ambitious interior minister, and head of the ruling UMP party.
Since politicians returned from their summer break, the pair have been competing to upstage one another. In a speech last week, Mr de Villepin unveiled a new phase of reforms, including the promise of income-tax cuts in 2007. Mr Sarkozy replied with two separate speeches this week, launching his own raft of proposals, and declaring that “nothing, and nobody, will stop me going all the way”. At the party's summer school, in front of the television cameras, Mr de Villepin kept Mr Sarkozy waiting in a beachside café while he jogged along the sand and dived into the ocean. Until recently, it seemed the popular Mr Sarkozy had no credible rival on the right. No longer. One poll this week put Mr de Villepin's popularity as a potential 2007 presidential candidate at 57%, second only to Mr Sarkozy, at 63%.