French presidents keep health a 'state secret'

By AFP

June 18, 2010 Updated Jul 26, 2009 at 11:11 PM EDT

The health of French presidents often becomes a state secret even though most promise transparency when they take office.

News that Nicolas Sarkozy was rushed to hospital on Sunday after suffering a nerve attack has got many French people thinking about the secrets kept by past leaders.

Ever since Georges Pompidou died while in office from leukaemia in 1974, presidents, Sarkozy included, have vowed to give voters a regular health bulletin. Few have declared any details.

Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who was elected after Pompidou's death, made the promise but did not release one bulletin during his seven years in office.

Late socialist leader Francois Mitterrand kept secret that he had a grave cancer. Almost as soon as he took over from Giscard in 1981, rumours circulated that Mitterrand had a serious illness.

Bulletins were released but no mention of his prostate cancer was made until after he had an operation in 1992 -- he had already been re-elected.

Mitterrand had another operation in 1994 and was clearly ailing when he finished his second term. Nine days after his death in 1996, his personal doctor Claud Gubler revealed in a book that Mitterrand had been diagnosed with prostate cancer in late 1981.

With controversy over Mitterrand's lack of disclosure still high, Jacques Chirac took over in 1995, again with a promise to "give any significant information about my state of health."

But he refused to publish any bulletins, using his right to protect his private life as the reason.

He spent a week at the Val de Grace military hospital, where Sarkozy was taken, in September 2005 with what was described as "a minor vascular incident".

Before that rumours circulated that Chirac had severe hearing problems, but these were denied by his aides.

Sarkozy again promised to tell all when he took over in 2007. And the Elysee palace quickly released a statement after the president was taken ill while jogging.

A presidential aide told AFP that Sarkozy had a problem related to his vagus nerve -- which helps the body regulate its heart rate -- but that doctors considered the problem "minor."

Xavier Bertrand, secretary general of Sarkozy's conservative UMP party, praised the "desire for transparency" shown by the presidency.

But the Elysee has still never officially acknowledged that Sarkozy also underwent an operation in October 2007.

Details about the throat operation were first given in a book about his former wife Cecilia which was published in January 2008. Sarkozy's aides privately confirmed that it was true.

During his election campaign, Sarkozy pledged to publish regular health bulletins. One made public five days after the president was sworn in, said he was fit to hold office.

His office said afterwards that the Elysee would publish health bulletins every year. There was none in 2008. On July 3 this year, the presidency said Sarkozy had undergone several heart and blood exams which were "normal".




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