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Balladur to head new French government: Mitterrand starts 'cohabitation' with Gaullist

President Francois Mitterrand yesterday appointed Edouard Balladur, the senior Gaullist politician, as Prime Minister, speeding up the transition to a new left-right cohabitation in France.

Only the timing of the announcement, 24 hours after the President's Socialist Party was trounced in parliamentary elections, was a surprise. Mr Balladur, 63, of the RPR (Gaullist) party, the biggest in the new National Assembly, had been tipped for months as the most likely new head of government. Mr Mitterrand had been expected to make a statement last night but not necessarily to name Mr Balladur. He had earlier accepted the resignation of Pierre Beregovoy, the outgoing Socialist prime minister.

In a four-minute televised address, Mr Mitterrand paid an unexpected tribute to Mr Balladur, saying he had named him not only because he believed the former Finance Minister was the best placed to control the huge 484-seat conservative bloc in the 577-seat parliament but also 'in view of his competence'. He said he hoped the new Prime Minister would form 'a coherent and solid team' as quickly as possible.

Later in the evening, after a 70- minute conversation with the President, Mr Balladur said he intended to form a cabinet which would be 'limited (in size) so as to work with coherence, efficiency and solidarity'.

Although the 76-year-old President, who appeared to be in buoyant form, said the wishes of the electorate would be 'scrupulously respected', he said he intended to 'watch over the conduct of our foreign policy and of defence policy'. That appeared to confirm his determination to remain head of state until the end of his mandate in May 1995.

It is in foreign policy and defence that the alliance of Gaullists and the centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF) most fears clashes with the head of state. During the first 1986-88 cohabitation, Mr Mitterrand had the last say on both those subjects. But now his party has been so massively rejected, the government will argue that he has little right to exercise the same influence.

Mr Mitterrand said he would pay particular attention to moves towards a more united Europe and spoke of the need to keep the franc tied to the German mark in the European Monetary System. Some members of the new majority, but none likely to take important portfolios, believe the franc should be floated, implying a devaluation, to boost exports and help to ease unemployment.

Final figures for Sunday's election gave the Gaullists 247 seats, the UDF 213 and other independent conservatives 24. The Socialists lost 200 seats to take 70 and the communists took 23.

Mr Mitterrand said he awaited 'a calm judgement' of Socialist rule. 'I trust in that of history,' he said.