Future looks uncertain

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Paris - France is littered with politicians who have lost power but cannot bring themselves to leave the stage, writes Jonathan Fenby. After finishing third in the first round of the presidential election, Edouard Balladur looks as though he is about to join them.

Until the new president is elected in the second round of voting on 7 May, Mr Balladur remains Prime Minister. After that, he said yesterday, "I will retain my place in national political life. We must continue to defend our values," he told supporters. "That is my intention. You can count on me."

Mr Balladur believes that his first round score of 18.5 per cent will give him a political base once he leaves office next month. The question is whether he can then attract the kind of support needed to remain at the forefront of French politics.

The presidential campaign showed that the naturally reserved Prime Minister lacks the popular electoral touch. His early lead in the opinion polls withered once he went out on the road to talk to voters. By Sunday night, he had become human enough to snap at noisy supporters to be quiet when he conceded defeat and said he would vote in the second round for his Gaullist rival Jacques Chirac. In his speech yesterday, the Prime Minister was back to his usual above-the-fray style.

A former senior civil servant and finance minister, Mr Balladur thought he could glide effortlessly from the premiership to the presidency without the backing of a political party. Now he has been eliminated,those who flocked to him at his zenith are likely to desert him equally smartly. Mr Chirac has asserted his control of the Gaullist party machine while former President Valry Giscard d'Estaing has blocked any opening in the conservative centre.

This leaves Mr Balladur with an uncertain future. He will continue to make speeches advocating financial prudence, careful change and Eurodevelopment, but is likely to become less of a political force as the new president gets into his stride.