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Chirac skips a meeting; aides are still quiet on his ailment

PARIS -- President Jacques Chirac skipped a weekly Cabinet meeting yesterday for the first time since he took office in 1995. Authorities kept France in suspense about the exact details of the hospitalized 72-year-old leader's ailment.

Officials have referred to Chirac's illness as ''a small vascular accident" that affected his vision in one eye. Doctors not involved in Chirac's treatment suggest a range of possible problems.

Some might be minor, such as a ruptured blood vessel in a retina, to more serious, such as a stroke.

Officials of the presidential Elysee Palace have worked to portray the president, who was admitted to the Val de Grâce military hospital Friday night, as active and as deeply involved in the affairs of state.

Chirac met for about an hour with Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin ahead of the Cabinet meeting. It held, unusually, at the prime minister'ss office, and was presided over by Villepin.

Officials took a reassuring tone about the president's condition. The government spokesman, Jean-François Cope, said Chirac was in ''very good form" and would be out of the hospital by week's end, as expected. Officials have not specified which eye had been affected.

It was still unclear whether Chirac would make his planned trip to New York on Sept. 13-15 for the UN General Assembly. Cope said scheduling details for that trip would be clarified when Chirac is released.

The Senate president, Christian Poncelet, who would replace Chirac if he could not carry out his functions, said he had ''not for one second" imagined that he might need to step in.

Chirac is ''going to get back on his horse, to use the customary expression, and then take charge again," Poncelet said in an interview with the radio network France-Info.

The French president, like other former chiefs of state, has often kept quiet about details of his health.

For years, President François Mitterrand covered up the prostate cancer that eventually killed him in 1996, the year after he left office.

Former conservative President Georges Pompidou died in office in 1974 without revealing that he had terminal cancer.

If Chirac has a minor problem, such as a retinal hemorrhage, the main question is why is he still hospitalized, said Dr. Stephan A. Mayer, associate professor at the Columbia University Medical Center in New York.

''VIPs, heads of state, sometimes they get over-treated, to their detriment," Mayer said Other possibilities ''are dicier," he said. For example, if Chirac had a brain aneurism, a form of stroke, he probably had coils inserted to prevent further bleeding. If so, officials are probably keeping quiet.

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