updated 5/15/2007 5:59:32 PM ET 2007-05-15T21:59:32

Jacques Chirac, in his final presidential appeal to the French, urged his compatriots Tuesday to stay united and proud of the nation he led for 12 years despite uncertainty about France’s place in today’s world.

“Always stay united,” Chirac said in a brief televised address Tuesday night, before the debonair 74-year-old turns over the presidency to fellow conservative Nicolas Sarkozy on Wednesday.

“A nation is a family. This link that unites us is our most precious asset,” he said, sitting in front of French and European Union flags.

He said France should be a nation of equal opportunity and an engine of European integration. Both appeals recalled low points of his tenure: the 2005 riots that laid bare deep-rooted discrimination against France’s immigrants, and the French rejection of the EU constitution that Chirac had championed.

He expressed “pride in a duty fulfilled” but did not list any accomplishments, and his statement lacked the eloquence and passion that have marked many of his speeches.

“I know that the new president, Nicolas Sarkozy, will endeavor to lead our nation forward on the paths of the future,” Chirac said of his protege-turned-rival, who was elected May 6 after promising an end to the economic stagnation and social tensions that marred Chirac’s tenure.

Post-presidential plans
Chirac often shone brighter on the global stage than at home, but he made no reference in his parting speech to his dream of a “multi-polar world” less dominated by the United States, or of his steadfast opposition to the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, a defining moment of his presidency.

Chirac said he would turn his post-presidential attention to “dialogue among cultures and sustainable development.”

He is expected to create a foundation to capitalize on his international reputation, similar to that of former President Clinton. Aides say the Chirac foundation will focus particularly on Africa.

Chirac sought to bring environmental issues into the spotlight, though critics say he had more words than action on the subject. He often stressed cultural understanding over exporting Western values — a stance that Sarkozy distanced himself from in an election-night speech in which he said France would stand beside those oppressed by fundamentalism.

France’s relations with Africa are likely to be less close and more pragmatic with the departure of Chirac, who nurtured ties with former colonies in Africa — and was criticized for cozying up to authoritarian African leaders. Sarkozy has few of those connections.

Stepping down from the presidency, Chirac will be closing out some four decades in politics. Chirac founded the neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic party, today transformed into the Union for a Popular Movement that Sarkozy headed before being elected president.

Corruption allegations
Chirac built the mainstream right into a powerful political machine. His ambitious search for funds for his party is at the heart of corruption allegations that implicated but never touched him while he had presidential immunity. He could be summoned for questioning in investigations into illegal party financing as soon as next month, judicial officials say.

A former prime minister and longtime ally, Alain Juppe, was questioned Tuesday in a probe linked to Chirac’s time as mayor of Paris from 1977-1995.

Chirac said his goodbye to Europe on a visit to Berlin on May 3 — and Sarkozy makes his first foreign trip to Berlin immediately after his inauguration.

Chirac famously misjudged French voters by staging a referendum on the European constitution. The French and Dutch rejections of the treaty have stalled European integration efforts since; Sarkozy seems keen to revive them with a more streamlined document.

After leaving the Elysee Palace, Chirac and his wife Bernadette were to settle temporarily into a deluxe apartment on Paris’ Left Bank on loan from the family of slain former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafik Hariri.

He is to receive about $8,120 a month in retirement pay as a former president, in addition to retirement pay as a former Paris mayor and for other senior posts he has held. He is also entitled to join the Constitutional Council, one of the highest bodies in the land.

The only other president to issue a televised farewell to the nation was Valery Giscard d’Estaing, on May 19, 1981, before turning over power to Socialist President Francois Mitterrand. With a much remembered final “au revoir,” Giscard stood, made an exit and left an empty chair in the spotlight.

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