France is living through moments of anxiety as it approaches the end of the Chirac era.

When he was battling the uprising of rebellious students in 1968, General Charles de Gaulle - then President of France - used to ask how one could possibly govern a country that produced 365 different types of cheese! He meant, of course, that the French were so diverse, so opinionated, so individualistic in their tastes, and so turbulent, that they were virtually ungovernable. That remains true today, as President Jacques Chirac and his prime minister, Dominique de Villepin, have ruefully discovered this past year, one of the most difficult in recent French history.

Among many unique French traits, two have been much in evidence. The first is a national inclination to complain, to grumble, to groan, to clamour and to make a fuss about almost everything - and in particular everything connected with the government and its handling of affairs.

A second striking French trait is the instinct to express one's dissatisfaction by demonstrating in the street. It would seem that there is hardly a Frenchman or woman alive today who has not taken part in a manifestation at one time or another - that is to say an outdoor event ranging from a fairly orderly protest march to an urban riot or a pitched battle with the police.

The present moment in French politics is fraught with particular anxiety because we are approaching the end of the Chirac era. Presidential elections next spring are expected to lead to Chirac's departure from office after 40 years in public life, in which he has served as mayor of Paris, prime minister and president for two full terms. He is at present so weakened and so unpopular, that no one expects him to stand again. His passing from the scene is bound to lead to a radical shake-up of the whole French governing class.

By May 2007, therefore, there will be a new incumbent in the Elysée Palace, a new government, new men at the top of key institutions and very probably new departures in domestic and foreign policy.

Although much can change over the next ten months, it looks increasingly as if the main contest for the presidency will be between Nicolas Sarkozy on the Right and Ségolène Royal on the Left. In the words of the headline writers, this will be a Sarko-Ségo battle.

He is the tough-talking minister of interior, head of the ruling UMP party, and a bitter rival of both Chirac and Villepin. She is a bright-faced, elegant, plain-speaking woman of 52, who, by addressing issues ordinary people care about, has surged ahead of all other candidates for the presidential elections. She is the first woman in French history to aspire to the presidency of the Republic.

Broken the mould

Ségolène Royal has broken the mould in three other respects as well. She is the (unmarried) partner of François Hollande, the Socialist Party Secretary, and the mother of his four children. She is the first French politician to mobilise grassroots support by means of the internet.

Her interactive website, (wishes for the future) has proved immensely popular. And she has dared shatter left-wing taboos by criticising the 35-hour week (the achievement of a former Socialist prime minister, Lionel Jospin); and by suggesting that child benefits for unruly youths should be frozen and the youths themselves sent for training in military camps. These views have aroused howls of protest on the far left, but have won her support in the centre and even on the right.

Some observers liken her to Britain's Tony Blair - whom she claims to admire - and express the hope that she can modernise the French Left on social democratic lines just as Tony Blair did with the British Labour Party. Above all, Ségolène Royal is riding a feminist trend. She is an attractive, highly-capable woman, at a time when women in many countries have fought their way successfully to the top - like Angela Merkel in Germany, Michelle Bachelet in Chile and Tanja Halonen in Finland.

If Ségolène Royal wins next May's presidential elections, she will have the Herculean task of shaking France out of its current mood of gloom and self-denigration.

Five major events - all of them unforeseen and generally disastrous - have shaken the self-confidence of the French political elite.

The first was the rejection, by a clear majority of the French electorate (54.67 per cent), of a proposed new Constitution for the European Union. The authorities had argued that the EU, now enlarged from 15 to 25 members, needed a new set of rules to order its affairs. But the French public said no. Chirac had staked his reputation on securing approval for the proposed Constitution. The No vote on May 29, 2005 was a shock to him, weakening him politically and undermining France's position in the European Union and the world.

How was the rejection to be interpreted? Some saw it simply as a vote against Chirac and his team. Others interpreted it as a dislike for EU enlargement, and a fear that further enlargement would bring Turkey, a major Muslim country, into the Union. Some saw it as a rebellion against interference in French affairs by ?faceless bureaucrats' in Brussels, and more generally as a cooling of France's enthusiasm for the whole European project. Another widely-held interpretation was that the No vote was actually a vote against ? globalisation', against the market economy, against the outsourcing of jobs, against American-style capitalism.

Although most Frenchmen and women are great individualists, they are also profoundly attached to the Republican values of equality, of social solidarity, of the role of the State in the economy, of a free health service, of security of employment, of a safety-net for the poor - in fact all the many aspects of what has become known as the ?French social model'. The accusation was that the proposed Constitution sought to replace the ?French model' with an alien, trans-Atlantic model, based on liberal, ?every-man-for-himself' free-market economics.

The European Union - and France in particular - have not yet recovered from the rejection of the Constitution. The debate rages on about how the Union can revive itself, and how the precious ?French model' can be reformed and yet survive.

Challenge to the authorities

A second major landmark was the outbreak of violent urban riots last October and November. These took place mainly in the run-down suburbs of Paris and other French cities, largely inhabited by first, second and even third-generation immigrants from the Maghreb and black Africa. Thousands of cars were burned, shops were looted and public buildings stormed, posing a tremendous security challenge to the authorities.

It was suddenly discovered that these outlying suburbs had become ghettos of misery and crime, home to armies of alienated and unemployed young people, who bore an enormous grudge against society. For many of these young Arabs and Africans, integration into French life had not worked. They felt they were victims of discrimination, that they had been driven to the margins of French life, denied equal access to work, to housing, to wealth, and to the array of consumer goods promoted on television and enjoyed by the rich. So they took to the streets and expressed their anger and frustration by an orgy of violent rioting.

The response of Prime Minister Dominique de Villepin has been to go all out to create jobs. His government has, in fact, brought down the overall rate of unemployment from 10 per cent to 9.3 per cent. This is a creditable performance, although unemployment among young people in the 18 to 25 age group, particularly those from immigrant backgrounds, remains very high at over 30 per cent.

A third major event this spring was the massive and prolonged strikes by students and workers. This rebellion forced Villepin to abandon his plan to introduce a more flexible work contract for young people entering the labour market for the first time. Villepin and his advisers knew very well that one reason for high unemployment was the rigidity of French labour laws. Sacking an employee had become almost impossible.

Villepin's plan was to encourage firms to hire workers by making it easier to fire them. But he was defeated. Job security in France is a religion, which is the reason many young people dream of a job for life in the civil service.

A fourth major event, which is still unfolding, is the so-called Clearstream affair. At the heart of this murky scandal is a series of anonymous letters which alleged that leading French politicians and civil servants had taken illegal commissions from the sale of warships to Taiwan, and had deposited the money in secret bank accounts with Clearstream, the Luxembourg-based clearing house.

It has now been revealed that the author of the anonymous letters was Jean-Louis Gergorin, a close friend of Villepin and a former head of strategy at EADS, the Franco-German aerospace group, which is the parent company of Airbus. Gergorin's information is said to have come from Imad Lahoud, a Franco-Lebanese IT expert who, by allegedly penetrating Clearstream's data base, is said to have secured a list of the bank's account holders - on which, it was first thought, Nicolas Sarkozy's name appeared.

It has since become clear that the list was doctored and manipulated, perhaps by Lahoud, perhaps by Gergorin himself. The allegation that the name of Sarkozy was on the list has since been proved false.

A fifth, highly damaging, development is the current grave crisis in Airbus, the pride of French industry. The crisis was triggered by the sudden announcement that deliveries of several aircraft, including the A380 super-jumbo - the biggest passenger plane in the world - would be delayed by several months. The announcement has caused the share price of EADS to crash. Meanwhile, Boeing, the American rival of Airbus in the field of civil aviation, is rejoicing at the setback suffered by its European competitor.

A further twist to the crisis is the news that Noel Forgeard, co-chief executive of EADS, and his children, sold shares in EADS worth some seven million euros last March. Did Forgeard have prior knowledge of the delivery delays? Was he guilty of insider trading?

In spite of these many difficulties, France remains a great democracy at the heart of Europe, a rich, vibrant and privileged country, with an unrivalled intellectual life. Among its industrial companies are a score of world leaders, ranging from manufacturers of defence electronics to luxury goods, a field in which the French are particularly strong. Whatever the problems it faces, France is never dull.

- Patrick Seale is a commentator and author of several books on politics.