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Eye problem puts Chirac in Paris hospital

Jacques Chirac
Jacques Chirac

PARIS (AP) — French President Jacques Chirac has been hospitalized after suffering a blood vessel problem in his eye, the prime minister said Saturday.

Officials said he was canceling several appointments this week, and while supporters played down the severity of the situation, the surprise hospitalization was likely to trigger questions about future changes in the French political landscape that Chirac has dominated for a decade.

Chirac, 72, was alert and consulting with advisers after being taken Friday evening to a Paris military hospital, said Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin after visiting the president for about an hour Saturday.

He said he had found the president in good form. "He can't wait to leave," Villepin said.

Chirac's schedule for the week had included a summit Tuesday with Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder in Germany and a meeting Friday with Prince Albert II of Monaco. Villepin will head a French Cabinet meeting on Wednesday in place of Chirac, the presidential Elysee Palace said.

The president was "hospitalized for tests after a circulatory problem in the eye," said Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Mari. She said she was "not worried."

Doctors said such a problem could range from a ruptured blood vessel to a stroke, which is often connected to vision trouble. More than 80 percent of strokes are caused by blockage in an artery carrying blood to the brain.

Schroeder, a longtime friend of Chirac, said news of the French leader's hospitalization "worried me greatly."

"I very much hope that you can soon fully resume the business of government and we can hold our planned meeting as soon as possible," he wrote Chirac in a letter.

Recent polls have shown Chirac's popularity hovering near an all-time low for his presidency, after voters in May rejected the EU constitution that he had supported. France's ties with the United States frayed after Chirac led international opposition to the U.S.-led war in Iraq.

Villepin said he and Chirac had discussed planned French aid for victims of Hurricane Katrina in the United States earlier Saturday.

Out of "solidarity" with Americans, the French government said Friday that it would contribute some oil stocks to an International Energy Agency plan to release strategic supplies as a way to ease the impact of Katrina on the oil market and consumers.

Chirac has been private about his health. After taking office in 1995 succeeding President Francois Mitterrand who kept his cancer secret for years, Chirac said that he would not speak publicly about his health. He reportedly once dressed down a former minister who had publicly hinted that he wore a hearing aid.

While president, Chirac has sought to portray himself as dynamic, energized and youthful. He has virtually no gray hair, set aside his glasses years ago for contact lenses and often appears tanned in public appearances.

"We are all hoping that he will recover his legendary vitality as quickly as possible," said Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy, who heads Chirac's UMP party and is seen as a leading contender to succeed him after elections in 2007. Sarkozy was speaking to a meeting of party faithful in the Atlantic coastal resort town of La Baule, many of whom chanted "Chi-rac! Chi-rac!"

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.