PARIS -- After more than four decades as a politician and a dozen years as president, Jacques Chirac announced his retirement from politics yesterday, but he did not endorse Nicolas Sarkozy, the presidential candidate and leader of his own party.
In a brief and deeply personal address to the nation carried on television and radio, Chirac said he would not seek a third term in next month's election.
"At the end of the mandate you have conferred on me, the moment will have come for me to serve you in another way," Chirac said. "I will not ask for your votes for a new mandate."
Chirac's message was one of farewell, not of politics. He looked better than he has for some time. He said of France, "I love it passionately." He told the French people, "Not for one instant have you ceased to inhabit my heart and my mind."
He listed what he considered to be the achievements of his tenure, saying, "I am proud of the work that we have accomplished together." The only regret he expressed was a desire to "have swept away more conservatism and selfishness in order to respond more quickly to some of your difficulties."
He ended his speech, as he always does, with the words, "Long live the republic! Long live France!"
Chirac's announcement about his own career was not a surprise. But he said nothing about the legacy or the future of the governing Union for a Popular Movement party that he founded, and did not endorse a candidate for the election that is only six weeks away. It remains unclear whether he will endorse any candidate.
"As far as the electoral deadlines are concerned, I will have the chance to express my personal choices," he said, without elaborating.
Despite a party that binds them, Chirac and Sarkozy - who is also the interior minister - long have had a strained relationship. Over the past few years, neither has curbed criticism of the other.
Still, polls indicate that Chirac's endorsement of Sarkozy would be a plus for his candidacy.
In an interview published in yesterday's Le Journal du Dimanche, a weekly newspaper, Sarkozy said he would welcome Chirac's support.
"If he should give me his support, this would be a politically important event," Sarkozy said.
But Sarkozy, who has sought to distance himself from Chirac, also underlined his differences with him, saying that if elected, "I'll be in politics in a different way." He added, "I am different from Jacques Chirac."
Chirac, 74, began his political career in 1962 as an adviser to Georges Pompidou, then the prime minister, and was elected for the first time as a member of parliament from Correze in central France 40 years ago today. He has held elective office ever since. He has been prime minister twice and served as mayor of Paris for 18 years.
Praised and vilified during his presidency, Chirac will leave office with a mixed legacy.
He probably will be best remembered by historians as the European leader who led the opposition to the American-led war in Iraq in 2003. He was the first French leader to acknowledge the guilt of the French state in the Nazi extermination of Jews in World War II. He pushed through reforms of the health care and pension systems and abolished compulsory military service.