Chirac already looking back in remembrance of summits past

Jacques Chirac, attending what was likely to be his last formal European Union summit before leaving office, looked back in remembrance of political battles past. And he was pleased with himself.

His step a little hesitant, his shoulders a little hunched, the 74-year-old needed only a few words Friday to sum up his two presidential terms at the helm of one of the EU's driving forces: "Europe has been a fantastic adventure."

Overbearing for some, cavalier for others, Chirac always made sure no one would forget "La France" was at the heart of Europe, much as his predecessor Francois Mitterrand had done.

He often clashed with Britain, be it over the war in Iraq or farm subsidies. British Prime Minister Tony Blair said that Chirac was still tough as nails this week.

Asked how he found Chirac at what was likely his last formal summit, Blair smiled, hesitated, then said, "As focused and as energetic and as presidential as ever."

Chirac is expected to announce Sunday that he will not run in France's two-round presidential election in April and May. Friday was too early. "Do not prejudge anything," he warned. His own place in European history, though, seemed already assured by his own reckoning.

And on Friday, he was not shy about taking some of the credit, at the very least, for many of the EU's achievements since he became president in 1995.

On his watch, the EU pushed through the euro currency, perhaps Europe's biggest success story over the past decades.

He said it was one of his biggest moments, staunchly defending the principle of a common currency now shared by 13 nations. "The determination I showed at the moment of the euro. I am not sure the euro would be here if we hadn't taken such a position. It was, if I may say so, courageous."

Chirac also picked the EU's fledgling defense efforts as a highlight along with his attachment to environmental issues.

"It is a battle I have long led and which yielded results today," he said.

EU leaders agreed Friday on a bold set of measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and pledged that a fifth of the bloc's energy will come from green power sources such as wind turbines and solar panels by 2020.

Chirac, though, will be better remembered for his staunch opposition to the war in Iraq at a time when Blair went in with the Americans and many aspiring EU member nations in eastern Europe also threw their weight behind Washington.

At the time, Chirac said the newcomers, who joined in 2004, lacked "well brought-up behavior. ... They missed a good opportunity to keep quiet." The stinging one-liners caused outrage in the east and, Chirac acknowledged Friday, they were over the top. "Perhaps it was excessive," he said.

There always was a touch of the unexpected in Chirac, especially when his national pride was tested.

Last year, he just stood up and unapologetically walked out of an EU summit when a French captain of industry spoke, of all languages, in English and called it the language of business.

"We fight for our language. It is in our international interest," he said.

He did have one regret Friday. When the French rejected the EU constitution he backed in 2005, he said he should have acted more forcefully.

"I am sorry to say I did perhaps not all to avoid a bad thing for France and Europe."

Even if it is his last formal summit, Chirac will travel to Berlin on March 24 for his swan song at an informal summit, celebrating 50 years of European history.

Unless he pulls another surprise and decides to run in the May elections.

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