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Struggling in Polls, French Host Chirac Offers Less-Swanky G-7

June 26, 1996

LYON, France (AP) _ In a sign of the times, French President Jacques Chirac is playing host for a two-star summit of Western leaders _ not the three-star extravaganza favored by his predecessor.

Instead of the gleaming new Grande Arche of La Defense where Francois Mitterrand was host for the Group of Seven in 1989, Chirac is entertaining his guests more simply in a provincial art museum in Lyon, France’s second-largest city.

Apart from the obligatory formal dinners, Chirac will invite President Clinton and the other heads of state to loosen their ties at a typical ``bouchon″ cafe for drinks and a fireworks show.

He’ll show off Lyon’s legendary gastronomy at the Leon de Lyon, a two-star restaurant rather than the three-star Paul Bocuse.

For Chirac in Lyon, ``it’s a sign of the times, a rejection of luxury. He wants to give the appearance of simplicity,″ said Michel Girard, political science professor at the Sorbonne.

``He wants to show we spend the taxpayer’s money less freely,″ he said.

That has been Chirac’s style since he first took office in May last year, riding to power on his outgoing, glad-handing American campaign style that contrasted sharply with the aloof Mitterrand.

Clinking glasses in French provincial bars, speaking English with Larry King on CNN, telling his drivers to stop at traffic lights, Chirac has fashioned himself as a more modern and personable president.

But it’s been a rough road that only lately has become a little less bumpy.

In the first year of his seven-year term, Chirac was hit by a crippling public workers’ strike, unemployment hovering around 12 percent, nuclear testing controversy and terrorist bombings.

He plunged in the polls faster than any other modern French president, registering a 34 percent approval rating back in September. But he has seen his stock rise back to the low-to-mid 40s in recent polls.

Since fall, unemployment has leveled off, unions have been divided over new action and Chirac has ended the nuclear test blasts.

But Chirac, who made joblessness his No. 1 campaign issue, faces divisions within his conservative coalition that’s nervous about how to slash unemployment in time for spring 1998 legislative elections.

``He’s going to send a signal that he didn’t renounce his campaign promises,″ said political scientist Girard.

Chirac will press again for job protection as he unsuccessfully did at this spring’s G-7 jobs summit in Lille, France, seeking workplace and employment norms, a French government source said on customary anonymity. France wants to impose tariffs on countries that don’t.

France will also press countries to maintain development aid as a priority. The United States fell to the No. 4 aid provider last year behind Japan, France and Germany, according to a report this week.

France seeks to slash its budget deficit, and its aid for former colonies has been a costly burden.

At the G-7 in Halifax, Nova Scotia, last June, Chirac interrupted a dinner to force out an emergency statement on Bosnia. But as host this time, ``France has to have a prudent, moderate position,″ Girard said.

Western diplomats in Paris have privately commended the Chirac team for efficiently leading the G-7 preparatory meetings.

A thorny issue for the summit could be the re-election bid by U.N. chief Boutros Boutros-Ghali, whom Chirac invited and Washington wants replaced.

France favors the French-speaking Boutros-Ghali, concerned his job could revolve to an English speaker less friendly to French interests.

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