The ERM Crisis: France: Gaullists take heart at Balladur's plight

PARIS - As the French franc heads for almost certain devaluation, it will be members of Edouard Balladur's Gaullist camp, rather than the opposition, who will draw satisfaction from the Prime Minister's discomfort, writes Julian Nundy.

The Bundesbank's decision to opt for the German economy rather than the overall European good by refusing to cut a key interest rate this week is likely to give cause for quiet celebration to those politicians who campaigned against France's ratification of the Maastricht European Union treaty last year.

Chief among them is Philippe Seguin, now the president of the National Assembly. Although he represented only one-third of parliamentarians of the Gaullist RPR at the time, opinion polls showed that his arguments against the treaty had the support of two-thirds of the Gaullist grass-roots. The treaty scraped through by less than a point in last September's referendum.

Very much in a minority, Mr Seguin, and other anti-Maastricht campaigners called for the franc to be decoupled from the mark to allow it to float to stimulate exports and chip away at unemployment.

Mr Balladur himself, who met President Francois Mitterrand yesterday, fuelling rumours of a weekend exit by the franc from the exchange rate mechanism, has said he will not be the prime minister who devalues the franc.

But if, as seems likely, the franc is devalued, it is unlikely that anyone in the RPR will push him to leave his post.

Jacques Chirac was silent for three days last week when speculation against the franc renewed before he finally opted to support Mr Balladur.

By keeping a distance from Mr Balladur, Mr Chirac, preening himself for the presidential election of May 1995, can see which way public opinion is swaying before opting for one or other wing.

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