French PM agrees to fall on his epee

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Prime Minister Alain Juppe last night exploded all calculations in the French parliamentary elections by announcing that he would quit his job if his centre-right coalition wins the second round on Sunday.

The announcement was intended to take the wind out of the sails of the Socialists and other left-wing parties, who unexpectedly won the first round last Sunday with 42 per cent of the vote. Mr Juppe is desperately unpopular and his departure may bring out tens of thousands of centre- right voters who stayed at home, or spoiled their ballots, at the weekend.

But the - in effect - resignation of a prime minister in the midst of an election is politically unprecedented and constitutionally dubious. The rather desperate hand of President Jacques Chirac, Mr Juppe's long- term mentor and boss in the Gaullist RPR party, will be seen behind the decision. It may alienate some voters, already angered by the President's decision to bring the election forward for tactical reasons.

Mr Juppe made the announcement at the opening of a post-mortem meeting last night of the campaign committee of the RPR and its coalition partner, the UDF alliance of small centre and rightist parties.

"To succeed in the new challenge ahead, we will need a new team, led by a new prime minister," he said. "I will continue the [electoral] battle to the end and then I will consider that my task has been completed."

Just before the committee meeting, Mr Juppe made a visit to President Chirac, in the greatest of secrecy, at the Elysee Palace.

Speculation on a possible successor - provided the centre-right wins - began instantly. A formal announcement before the election would further mangle constitutional propriety but officially-inspired leaks are likely.

The front-runners will be Philippe Seguin, another leading figure in the RPR who was president of the outgoing parliament and a partially reformed EMU-sceptic, and Francois Bayrou, education minister and rising star of the UDF.

Outside possibilities might be the former prime minister, Edouard Balladur, or some semi-political figure from a state-owned enterprise.

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