Balladur finds himself abandoned among friends

Stephen Jessel reports from Paris on the sudden change in fortunes of a prime minister who looked destined for the presidency

THE French presidential election campaign burst into life last week with a scandal over illegal phone-tapping and a furious trans-Atlantic row that cast a shadow over Prime Minister Edouard Balladur's planned path to the Elyse Palace.

A bad week for Mr Balladur ended with his combative Interior Minister Charles Pasqua, apparently out of control, engaged in an acrimonious dispute with the United States, and a state of barely concealed warfare between the Interior and Foreign ministries.

As the front-runner, Mr Balladur has been the natural target of his many rivals and has been criticised for a tendency to retreat in the face of opposition. His attempted justification of the phone-tapping, followed by a recognition that it was after all illegal, further dented his image and the active support of Mr Pasqua is beginning to appear more of a liability than an asset.

When Mr Pasqua decided to support Mr Balladur rather than the Gaullist leader Jacques Chirac, Mayor of Paris and eternal presidential candidate, it seemed a major coup for the Prime Minister. As Mr Pasqua likes to point out, he is immensely popular and has as much claim to represent the Gaullist tradition as Mr Chirac. Many observers believed there was at least a tacit understanding that Mr Balladur would repay Mr Pasqua by making him prime minister once elected.

During his first spell as interior minister between 1986 and 1988 Mr Pasqua won a reputation as a policeman's policeman with none too exaggerated a concern for civil liberties. But, reappointed in 1993, he has softened his image and recruited new advisers from a wide background seeking to lose his reputation as the premier flic de France.

But it seemed the old days were back when, in an affair murky even by the exacting standards of French political scandals, police tapped the phone of the father-in-law of a magistrate investigating corruption allegations against a close associate of Mr Pasqua in Mr Pasqua's political fiefdom. The aim seemed to be to compromise the magistrate into abandoning his investigation by showing a relative had sought a bribe in connection with the case.

A senior police official was duly fired. Mr Balladur's supporters claimed they had been lied to and protested that the news that the Elyse Palace had carried out thousands of illegal phone-taps in the early 1980s was being ignored. But the damage was done. Mr Pasqua resisted calls to resign but his prospects of becoming prime minister visibly diminished.

Then came the opinion polls suggesting that Mr Balladur, who had been comfortably ahead both of Mr Chirac and the Socialist challenger Lionel Jospin, was now more or less level with them. Since half the electorate has not made up its mind how to vote, the polls are of limited value but three gave broadly the same message - that Mr Balladur's lead had evaporated. The significance of the figures lies in an electoral system which allows only the two candidates at the top of the poll in the first round to go through to the second and decisive round.

On Wednesday afternoon, relief arrived in the form of a lengthy account in the newspaper Le Monde of a demand by Paris that five Americans, including four diplomats, be removed for alleged spying. Cynics, in France a group embracing the political class and most other people, assumed the story had been leaked by Mr Pasqua to obscure the phone-tapping scandal and remind the public of his role as guardian of the nation's safety. Mr Pasqua suggested the leaks had come from the Americans. The US embassy hit back angrily, in a rebuttal more reminiscent of Franco-Soviet Cold War rows than of relations between two allies. "We categorically reject the allegation that we are responsible for the detailed and totally regrettable press leaks . . .This charge is neither true nor credible," the embassy said in a statement.

At the Quai d'Orsay, the Foreign Minister, Alain Jupp, one of a small band of Chirac loyalists in the government, was reported to be outraged that a sensitive affair involving relations with a friendly power had been made public, the more so since Mr Pasqua has long been running an alternative and sometimes divergent foreign policy from his own ministry.

The Socialists, united for once behind the former education minister Mr Jospin, could only watch as the feuding continued within the government and between the Balladur and Chirac camps. The polls showed that Mr Jospin would lose to either Mr Balladur or Mr Chirac in the second round of the election but the margins were not huge and the gloom that descended when Jacques Delors refused to stand for the Socialists began to lift.

Mr Jospin's programme is obscure and there is little sign that the electorate wants the left back in power, but the self-inflicted wounds on the right gave the Socialist campaign an encouraging start. But the Socialists then suffered a reverse when Jean-Franois Hory, leader of a small radical party traditionally allied to the Socialists, decided to join the presidential race.

The party had a brief moment of glory in the 1993 European elections when, headed by the flamboyant and now indicted businessman Bernard Tapie, it took 12 per cent of the vote. Mr Tapie's many problems with the law stop him standing and he has pointedly failed to endorse Mr Hory. The radicals' usual score is around one per cent but Mr Hory could in a tight race deprive Mr Jospin of just enough support to prevent him reaching the second round.

Eleven candidates are now declared and a twelfth in the form of former premier Raymond Barre could emerge in the days to come. The lieutenants of Mr Chirac and Mr Balladur are at each other's throats. Mr Balladur must be reflecting on the axiom of French politics that the harm your enemies can do you is trivial compared with that your friends can inflict and on the observation of a senior Gaullist that the French right "is the most stupid in the world".

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