Mitterrand 'losing battle with cancer'

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FRANCOIS MITTERRAND is responding so badly to treatment for cancer that French politicians believe he could stand down well before the end of his presidential term next May.

A government minister said yesterday that the Gaullist RPR party was gearing up for the possibility of presidential elections earlier than those already scheduled in April. That could explain the sudden flurry of activity by supporters of Jacques Chirac, the RPR president, who unexpectedly declared their backing for his candidature last weekend. This was seen as an attempt to pre-empt the chances of the Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, who is also a Gaullist.

Since his second operation in two years for cancer of the prostate, on 18 July, the Socialist President has been undergoing 'heavy chemotherapy and he is not taking it well,' one source said yesterday. President Mitterrand, who will be 78 next month, was suffering from the usual consequences of such treatment such as hair loss and a waxen facial appearance.

Bernard Debre, one of his surgeons, and a Gaullist member of the National Assembly, has been told not to be more than one hour away from Paris, one source said.

Nonetheless, Mr Mitterrand plans to take the place of Mr Balladur at ceremonies in Berlin today to mark the departure of Allied troops, the source added.

In an interview with Le Figaro published today, in which he endorses Jacques Delors as the left- wing politician best-placed to run in France's presidential election, Mr Mitterrand indicates he might have only a few months to live. 'I think it (cancer) will be obliging enough to allow me to complete my term. That's what I believe. I may be wrong,' he said. 'I would like to have time to write five or six books on the main moments of my political career. But a book takes time . . . and I don't have much left.'

The weekly L'Express will run a headline in tomorrow's issue saying 'Mitterrand. How he is preparing his departure'. It reports that information about his health is taking on 'a dramatic tone'.

Speculation about the President's health is not new. Even before his first election in 1981, there were reports attributing grave illnesses to him which were not borne out with time. But sources close to the Hotel Matignon, the Prime Minister's office, said officials there were now saying that Mr Balladur was 'ready for anything'.

When Mr Mitterrand was first operated on for prostate cancer in 1992, medical bulletins said the cancer had been caught at an early stage. But some doctors said the indications were that this was not true.