French Blairites form new party

A TEXAN politician once said: "There ain't nothing in the middle of the road but yellow lines and dead armadillos." Much the same - allowing for differences in fauna and road-markings - could be said of French politics in the past 40 years.

This weekend an attempt - maybe historic, maybe doomed - was made to generate a strong force in the centre of French politics. The Union pour la Democratie Francaise (UDF) - a kind of holding company of centre and right parties since 1978 - was remoulded into a new single party of the centre. This opens up the possibility of alliances between the centre and left for the first time since the Fifth Republic was founded in 1958.

In the shorter term, the new centrist party must decide whether to go it alone in the European elections next June, abandoning the quarrelsome coalition of the Gaullists and centre right that has dominated French conservative and liberal politics for two decades.

The President of the UDF, Francois Bayrou, told delegates to the founding convention in Lille that they were opening a new chapter in French politics. "This is the end of a long march and the beginning of a new way," he said.

The new party, which will have 68 deputies in the National Assembly, is broadly pro- European, pro-market, in favour of modernised welfare systems and better directed state spending. It might be described as a French Blairist party - Mr Bayrou is a great admirer of New Labour.

A string of speakers at the weekend called on the party to present a separate list for the Euro elections, cutting formal links with the Gaullists and other right-wing parties. A decision will be made in January.

The stable but stultified landscape of French right of centre politics has been blown apart in the past eight months.

A series of unauthorised local alliances with the far-right National Front forged by a handful of regional barons last March destroyed the old structures, leaving the national leaders in an often undignified scramble to pick up the pieces.

The neo-Gaullist RPR - itself an uneasy mix of populism and liberalism, nationalism and Europeanism - has survived more or less intact as the most important single formation on the centre right.

But parts of the old UDF coalition have spun off into two, competing right-wing parties, some of whose members are tempted to form permanent electoral alliances with the anti-immigrant, extreme nationalist NF. The former defence minister Charles Million, now in alliance with the NF as president of the Rhone-Alpes region, was ejected from the UDF and formed his own mildly Eurosceptic party called La Droite. Alain Madelin took his Democratie Liberale party out of the UDF and into informal partnership with the Gaullists.

The rump of the UDF - Mr Bayrou's centrist Force Democratie, members of two other small parties and a few anti-Madelin former liberals - decided at the weekend to pool their resources. Even then, the two small parties - with four MPs between them - have insisted on maintaining a separate identity for the time being.

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