Ambitious rivals ready to push Giscard aside

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An ill-tempered battle has broken out to succeed one of the most familiar figures in French - and European - politics: the former president Valery Giscard d'Estaing. Far from departing in the gracious style to which he is accustomed, Mr Giscard finds himself being unceremoniously pushed aside by at least two ambitious younger men.

One is Alain Madelin, the outspoken economics minister, dismissed by the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, in August after a series of policy disagreements. The other is themore diplomatic Francois Leotard, a former defence minister, who has not hidden his presidential aspirations.

Mr Giscard is president of the UDF, junior partner of the Gaullist RPR party in the government coalition. Mr Madelin announced last month that he planned to replace him and would campaign on a platform of renewing the UDF as a political force.

He was soon followed by Mr Leotard, who talked about the need to preserve the UDF's moderate and pro-Europeancharacter. Mr Giscard, himself, meanwhile, made known that he would not be standing.

The departure of Mr Giscard - who founded the UDF in 1978, half-way through his Presidency - to generate much-needed parliamentary support for his policies, leaves it riven with dissent.

Increasing criticism of the European Union inside France eroded his political position further. His disappointed petulance when European ministers named the projected single European currency the "euro", instead of retaining the name "ecu" as he - one of its architects - would have wished, showed how remote he already was from EU politics.

Until this weekend, Mr Leotard had the upper hand, thanks to his long experience of UDF infighting and UDF officials' fear of career-threatening change. On Saturday, however, the present defence minister and UDF stalwart, Charles Millon, backed Mr Madelin. The fight, he said, was between "a man of the party establishment and a man of ideas", and he favoured the latter.

A Madelin-led UDF would be further to the right on economics and more critical of Europe than Mr Giscard's UDF. But it would give a platform to those of a more libertarian tendency who shelter in the RPR and the UDF (causing divisions in both) but have no organisation of their own.

The emergence of such a grouping before the 1998 elections could make life very difficult for the Gaullists, and for their leader, Mr Juppe, personally. As would-be presidential candidate in 2002, he would have a rival to reckon with.