French right hit by bitter feuding

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The Independent Online
AUGUST IS traditionally the month when normal business ceases in France, even the perennial blood-letting within the ranks of the parties of the French centre-right. But not this year.

Five months after the ultra-right National Front exploded the structures of the centre-right by engineering a series of unauthorised regional alliances, France remains, in effect, without an organised political opposition.

The principal leaders of the centre-right parties and factions are scarcely on speaking terms: some are making no further attempt to conceal their mutual loathing.

Francois Leotard, head of the virtually defunct UDF coalition, was placed under formal examination last week for money laundering.

He is accused of creating a paper-chain of loans and transfers between banks and institutions in Italy, Luxembourg and France in 1995 to disguise the origins of a sum of pounds 500,000 belonging to his party.

The circumstances are dubious at the least, but little different from what was happening in almost all French political parties at the time. Far from standing behind his old colleague, a former finance minister, Alain Madelin, started an associated legal action, in effect suing Mr Leotard on behalf of Liberal Democracy, the party to which they both belong.

At the same time, Mr Madelin - who presents himself as a French Thatcherite - was accused yesterday of considering, or even discussing, deals with Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front. He has reportedly discussed the possibility of re-admitting to his party a regional assembly chairman expelled for forming an alliance with the NF after the regional elections last March.

In the meantime, President Jacques Chirac, still, by default, the most important single figure on the French right, floats higher and higher in the opinion polls, propelled upwards by the French success in the World Cup and a vibrant economy, run by a left-of-centre government.

His own Gaullist party, the RPR, remains wracked by internal divisions. An attempt to rebuild a unified centre-right, linking the Gaullists and the splinters of the old UDF, has virtually foundered within three months of being created.

Relations between Chirac and the head of his own party, the man who hoped to displace him at the next presidential election, Philippe Seguin, remain awkward at best.

The most telling symptom of the disarray of the right is the failure of the Alliance, launched with much fanfare in May. The new grouping, including both the RPR and the five factions within the all-but defunct UDF, might have opened the way to the creation of a single French "conservative" party.

In practice, it has become another battleground for the self-serving "personalities" of the centre-right. The Alliance was, typically, called into being by Messrs Seguin and Leotard with no consultation with the grass roots. In the past three months, the national barons of the centre- right have failed to agree on a single programme.