Rioting further weakens French president

The unrest buffeting France the past three weeks has further undermined the already weakened presidency of Jacques Chirac, but he is far from alone on a continent with pressing problems and few strong leaders to tackle them. Britain, Germany and Italy also have troubled governments, leaving the European Union in limbo as US President George Bush's administration increasingly shows interest in a cohesive Europe to help with difficult diplomatic tasks in the Middle East and elsewhere. Chirac, 72, was politically humiliated in May when French voters rejected the proposed European constitution. During the recent nationwide rioting in low-income immigrant communities, Chirac made few public statements - strengthening the expectation that he will not seek re-election in 2007. Jean Francois-Poncet, a French senator and former foreign minister, said progress on major EU initiatives might be difficult until after the next elections in France and Italy. He also said the rioting, which often pitted police against Muslim youths, tarnished France's image in Arab countries where Paris has long considered itself influential. Yet Francois-Poncet observed that France, for all its troubles, could take comfort from looking elsewhere in Europe.