Balladur off on campaign trail

Click to follow
The Independent Online
As France's gloomy Socialists set out yesterday evening to vote for a presidential nominee in the first stage of the "primary' election, the campaign of Edouard Balladur, Prime Minister and presidential favourite, seemed already to have slipped ef fortlessly into a higher gear.

On Thursday night, he gave the first television interview. As smoothly professional as ever, every inch the president-in-waiting, he said he wanted a France that was "more optimistic, more united,and more just". He calmly parried questions about his record in office, in particular the failure to reduce unemployment and the budget deficit, by saying his government had been in power only a short time and had inherited a very difficult situation, a response that will doubtless be heard many more times.

He only hinted that the next government might cut public spending or raise taxes: "The priority is to reduce the deficits because France is living beyond its means. And France, like any family, cannot run up debts indefinitely." He will launch his official election programme on 13 February.

While Mr Balladur's campaign may be running on wheels, the scene on the political right as a whole is no more tranquil than it is on the left. If anything, the rivalry is nastier because the chance of winning power is so much greater.

There is speculation that Mr Balladur's camp has been secretly trying to persuade his main rival, Jacques Chirac, to withdraw in return for the promise of a high post in the new administration. Mr Balladur forcefully denied that in his interview, saying:"In the Fifth Republic, it is the people who decide who will govern the country, not the political parties. Any system that involves secret dealing in advance behind the backs of the French people would not be acceptable."

But, in a barely concealed dig at Mr Chirac, Mr Balladur added: "I was appointed Prime Minister at an extremely difficult time, when there were few candidates brave enough to accept."

Mr Chirac is believed to have allowed Mr Balladur to become Prime Minister two years ago in the expectation that he would fail. Instead, his popularity has consistently risen and Mr Chirac's presidential chances have correspondingly reduced.