updated 9/4/2005 7:19:36 PM ET 2005-09-04T23:19:36

President Jacques Chirac, hospitalized after suffering a small blood vessel problem that hindered his vision, was in good condition, walking and discussing the issues of the day, the French prime minister said Sunday.

The president’s hospitalization came as his party held its annual summer meeting, with the party leader, Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, pressing ahead with his quest to succeed the 72-year-old president.

But Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin said any speculation that health problems could stop Chirac from seeking a third term as president in 2007 is “irrelevant and disconnected from today’s reality.”

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. But he made his own intentions clear.

Challenger's ‘strategy of rupture’
“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 the policies of Chirac, his one-time mentor.

Chirac was taken to the hospital late Friday after noticing a problem with his eyesight, Villepin said during a radio interview Sunday night, “and the doctors proposed he stay for complementary tests.”

Villepin, who spoke with Chirac on Sunday, said that during a Saturday visit to the hospital he saw Chirac “standing, walking in his room and talking about the major issues,” including French aid to the United States to help cope with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“His general state and his medical report are very satisfactory,” said Val-de-Grace hospital in a statement Sunday, adding that Chirac would stay under medical supervision for several days.

Chirac’s wife, Bernadette, was seen leaving the hospital Sunday afternoon. French radio reports said she had returned only on Sunday from a holiday in southeastern France, appearing to indicate that she was not overly concerned.

Change afoot in French politics?
The president’s hospitalization has focused attention on possible changes in France’s political scene, which has been dominated by Chirac for a decade. Opinion polls have shown his popularity near an all-time low, and some members of his conservative party are distancing themselves.

Chirac and Sarkozy have long had a tense relationship. Political observers cite Sarkozy’s decision to back then-Prime Minister Edouard Balladur in the 1995 presidential race, which Chirac won, as a prime 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.

Although Sarkozy has never hidden his presidential ambitions, choosing a candidate for an election is up to the party.

In a boisterous speech to members of the Union for a Popular Movement in the Atlantic coastal resort of La Baule, Sarkozy promised a “healthy, loyal and quality” competition.

Sarkozy is often depicted in polls and French media as the front-runner for the 2007 contest. But polls show the popularity of Villepin — viewed as Chirac’s protege — has been rising since he took office in June.

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.

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