Row over French minister's coma

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SIX DAYS after a cabinet minister fell into a coma during routine surgery, France is starting to ask questions about what happened to Jean- Pierre Chevenement and why.

"France" includes the Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, who has complained privately that doctors at the premier French military hospital are starving him of information on his friend's condition.

It also includes the influential newspaper Le Monde, which led its front page yesterday on the many unanswered questions about Mr Chevenement's medical "accident". The newspaper also demanded an "exhaustive, independent inquiry". As Le Monde pointed out, the secrecy surrounding the Interior Minister's near-fatal reaction to an anaesthetic (the news was suppressed for 24 hours) has generated some far-fetched rumours.

It is no coincidence, some mutter darkly, that Mr Chevenement, 59, leader of the populist Mouvement des Citoyens, was taking an unusually tough line with the Corsican independence movement and its Mafia-like activities. Others suggest, more reasonably, that the secrecy is part of a self-serving cover-up by the medical establishment.

The town hall at Belfort in eastern France, where Mr Chevenement was born and was mayor for 14 years until last year, has been swamped by phone calls. "They think the media is not telling them the whole truth," said the present mayor, Jacky Drouet, an ally of the ailing minister.

Mr Chevenement has been in a coma since last Wednesday, after going into the Val-de-Grace military hospital for a routine operation to remove his gall bladder. Officially, he is said to be improving slowly but is being kept unconscious to enhance his chances of full recovery.

Concern deepened yesterday when the Education Minister, Claude Allegre, a man known for speaking his mind, contradicted this official version of events. He said that Mr Chevenement's condition was "stationary and alarming".

According to Le Monde, the Prime Minister has told members of his office that he is not receiving "enough" information from the military doctors.

The Interior Minister's loss - even temporarily - would be a serious blow to Mr Jospin. As leader of a centre-left faction allied to Mr Jospin's Socialist Party, Mr Chevenement is one of the most important jigsaw pieces in the pink-red-green coalition that has been ruling France since June last year.

His "Citizen's Movement", founded in 1992, is Euro-sceptic, conservative on social issues and leftist on the economy. It is largely through his influence that the Jospin government has taken a tough line on immigration and law and order. In return, Mr Chevenement has backed the administration's pro-European Union and pro-EMU policies.

The Interior Minister had planned to be back at his desk within a week. Doctors at the hospital said he suffered a massive allergic reaction to curare, which was part of the anaesthetic. His heart stopped beating for more than an hour and he went into a coma.

He has not recovered consciousness. Medical bulletins say he is no longer in a coma, in the proper sense, but is kept unconscious to reduce the risk of brain damage.

Le Monde complained yesterday that the hospital and government were refusing to say whether precautions had been taken to establish whether Mr Chevenement was allergic to curare before the operation. "To hide behind a veil of secrecy, whether medical, military or state, is the surest way to let rumours take hold," it said.

The Val-de-Grace hospital issued a bulletin last night in which it said Mr Chevenement was improving slowly. The hospital said it remained to be seen whether his brain had been damaged.