Social tensions

But on the domestic front he introduced few meaningful reforms and leaves behind a difficult legacy for his successor, with the French economy underachieving and social tensions simmering in deprived suburbs.

Opinion polls have indicated for months that Chirac would have been beaten if he had run for a record third mandate in the April/May election, but he had kept silent over his plans, apparently to avoid being regarded as a "lame duck" president.

All three leading contenders to succeed Chirac, Segolene Royal, the presidential candidate for the Socialists, Francois Bayrou, the head of the Union for French Democracy and conservative Nicolas Sarkozy of the ruling UMP party, are in their 50s and all have pledged to break with the politics of the past 25 years.

Patrice de Beer, a former editor of the Le Monde newspaper, told Al Jazeera that is was common knowledge that Chirac and Sarkozy do not like each other and that Sarkozy began his campaign by distancing himself from Chirac's 12 years as president.

He said: "I don't see Chirac supporting Sarkozy with any enthusiasm."

The last survivor of a political generation that started out in the postwar governments of General Charles de Gaulle, Chirac's career was marred by allegations of corruption, which he always denied, dating from his 18 years as mayor of Paris.