Hospitalized Chirac in Good Condition

President Jacques Chirac was in good condition Sunday following his hospitalization for a blood vessel problem, the hospital said. With the French leader sidelined, the head of his party pressed his quest to assume the presidency in two years' time.

Chirac was taken to a Paris military hospital late Friday after suffering blood vessel trouble that was hindering his eyesight, but was already eager to leave, the prime minister said Saturday. Chirac's wife, Bernadette, was seen leaving the hospital Sunday afternoon, but only waved to reporters. French radio reports said she had returned Sunday from a holiday in southeastern France, appearing to indicate that she was not overly concerned.

The presidential palace did not provide immediate comment. Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said Chirac was in "good form" when the two men met at the hospital on Saturday. Officials said Chirac had canceled or delayed several appointments this week.

With Chirac in the hospital, the popular leader of his conservative political party, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, told party members that no one would stop his quest for the presidency in 2007 and sought to draw a line between their visions for France.

The two men have long had a tense relationship. Many political observers cite Sarkozy's decision to back then-Prime Minister Edouard Balladur in the 1995 presidential race, which Chirac won, as one cause.

Although Sarkozy has never hidden his presidential ambitions, choosing a candidate for an election is up to the party. Questions remain about whether Chirac will seek a third term, or whether Villepin will enter the 2007 race.

In a boisterous speech to cheering members of the Union for a Popular Movement in the Atlantic coastal resort of La Baule, Sarkozy promised a "healthy, loyal and quality" competition in the 2007 race. "Nobody, really nobody, will stop me from completing the mission that you have set for me," he said, calling for a "strategy of rupture" — a seeming call to break with policies of Chirac, his former mentor.

Sarkozy is often depicted in polls and French media as the front-runner for the 2007 contest. But polls show the popularity of Villepin — a fellow conservative viewed as Chirac's top protege — has been rising since he took office in June. "We need to invent a new French model," Sarkozy said — a sharp contrast to recent calls from Villepin to "modernize" France's economic strategy, which is known for costly social protections.

Chirac has said that he would not speak publicly about his health and reportedly once dressed down a former minister who had publicly hinted that he wore a hearing aid. Elysee officials said they believed that Chirac — a former heavy smoker not known to exercise regularly — had not missed a day of work since taking office in 1995.

In his only other known health problem, Chirac suffered a broken pelvis in a 1979 car accident while mayor of Paris, San Francisco Chronicle reports.

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