Balladur quickly appoints replacement for Longuet

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TRYING to calm a government crisis, Edouard Balladur appointed Jose Rossi, a leader of the centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF), Industry Minister yesterday to replace Gerard Longuet.

Mr Longuet, 48, named in judicial investigations into fraud, both personal and connected to political party funding, resigned on Friday, two weeks before the conclusion of an inquiry into one aspect of his affairs - how he paid for a St Tropez villa.

Two days earlier, Alain Carignon, the Gaullist mayor of Grenoble who resigned as communication minister in July because he faced fraud charges, was remanded in custody after an additional charge of corruption was added to his dossier.

Mr Balladur had obtained a controversial exemption from charges until 31 October from the Justice Ministry to allow Mr Longuet to prepare a defence, presumably in the hope of heading off an indictment. After the shock of Mr Carignon's imprisonment, Mr Balladur, plainly feeling the government could not afford to keep Mr Longuet, asked him to go immediately.

Rather than reshuffle his cabinet, Mr Balladur opted to name a straight replacement for Mr Longuet, whose portfolios covered industry, post and telecommunications, and foreign trade. Mr Rossi, 50, the Republican Party secretary-general and a National Assembly deputy for southern Corsica, enters government for the first time.

Announcing his decision a day earlier than expected, Mr Balladur sought to close a painful chapter as quickly as possible. The conservative Republican Party, of which Mr Longuet is president, is the main component of the UDF, an alliance of centre- right parties that is the coalition partner of Mr Balladur's Gaullist RPR party. Mr Longuet has been one of the most influential politicians supporting Mr Balladur for the presidency.

Six months before the start of the presidential elections to find a successor to Francois Mitterrand, Mr Balladur, still the strongest contender, put forward proposals last week to combat political corruption.

With the RPR fighting over whether Mr Balladur or Jacques Chirac, the party president, should be its candidate, some senior UDF politicians believe the RPR and UDF should put up a joint candidate.

Mr Chirac has set up a campaign team headed by Philippe Seguin, the president of the National Assembly, and Alain Juppe, the Foreign Minister and RPR secretary- general. This provoked the anger of Charles Pasqua, the Interior Minister and promoter of the concept of 'primaries' to find a single conservative candidate. He said on Friday he was uncomfortable with the presence of Mr Juppe, an opponent of primaries, in both Mr Balladur's cabinet and on Mr Chirac's campaign staff With talk of sleaze, and open internal party rifts, conservative politicians have taken to lamenting 'la machine a perdre' - the 'losing machine' - which they fear will deny the right the Elysee Palace for the third time in a row.

These fears were heightened by the fact that last week, for the first time, an opinion poll put Mr Balladur and Jacques Delors, the European Commission president and the most likely Socialist Party candidate for the Elysee Palace, on an equal footing.