France's former defence minister, Francois Leotard, won one of the most bitter and personal contests of recent French politics yesterday to be elected leader of the country's second largest political group, the Union pour la Democracie Francaise (UDF).
He succeeds Valery Giscard d'Estaing, who founded the UDF 18 years ago as a parliamentary base for his centre-right pro-Europe policy when he was President of France.
Mr Giscard d'Estaing, who is 70, says he is stepping out of the national political limelight to concentrate on his adopted local region, the Auvergne, in central France.
As almost his last act as UDF leader, however, and one that summed up the acrimony of the two-month leadership campaign, he used his valedictory speech to endorse the candidacy of Mr Leotard's chief rival, the aggressive former economy minister, Alain Madelin.
Mr Madelin, whose popularity with the French public soared after he was sacked from the first government of Alain Juppe in August, had stood on a platform of change, renewal and modernisation. He toured the country portraying Mr Leotard as the candidate of the status quo and the UDF's inexorable decline.
In his speech at yesterday's election convention, Mr Madelin said: "Today's status quo is, I fear, tomorrow's defeat." Ramming the point home he asked: "How can the French trust the political parties to reform French society when those parties are not capable of reforming themselves?"
Mr Leotard was regarded by his enemies as the candidate of the party apparatus. By his friends and supporters he was seen as the "legitimate" candidate who merited the succession and would be able to keep the UDF - a loose federation of diverse political parties, each too small to have influence in its own right - united through a potentially difficult period for the political right.
All eyes are on the 1998 parliamentary elections, when the right - Gaullists and UDF alike - fear a sharp fall in their massive parliamentary majority, if not its outright loss. Their fears have been exacerbated in recent weeks as the overwhelming majority of local and parliamentary by-elections have gone against them.
One consideration of UDF members was to elect a leader who would minimise the losses in 1998. Mr Madelin sees himself as that leader, and in his upbeat address to delegates yesterday he presented himself as someone who would be able to restore the good name of politicians and politics in the eyes of French voters and maybe return the UDF to its 1978 position as the largest political grouping on the right.
Public opinion polls among French voters generally, and among rank-and- file UDF members gave Mr Madelin a large majority before yesterday's election.
Francois Leotard, however had the backing of the UDF apparatus and the complicated voting mechanism for the leadership - a three-part electoral college - gave him a relatively easy victory.
But he also had a hidden weapon in the shape of a running mate, Francois Bayrou.
Mr Bayrou, education minister for for the past three years, is a political bruiser equal to Mr Madelin but more canny, as he showed yesterday. He used his position as a candidate for the UDF national council to deliver a ruthless and highly personal attack on Mr Madelin, painting him as a believer in US-style welfare cuts and cheap employment.
Mr Bayrou's intervention saved Mr Leotard whose own campaign speech had been lacklustre and pessimistic. Speaking of the "crisis" afflicting France, he said it was not just a crisis of jobs or Aids but " a formidable crisis of civilisation".
Mr Bayrou, however, will want his reward. He is believed to have backed Mr Leotard only on condition that he vacates the leadership in three years' time. He has never concealed his presidential ambitions, and leadership of the UDF would give him a power base from which to stand in 2002.
This, however, assumes both that Mr Leotard agrees to stand down and that the UDF is still a fighting force after the 1998 parliamentary elections.
Both Mr Giscard d'Estaing and Mr Madelin, along with many French political analysts, agree that without a strong, unifying and radical leader with popular appeal, the UDF risks fragmenting into the small parties from which it was formed.Reuse content