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Balladur takes first step to presidency

The spring election is far from being a one-horse race
Strasbourg - Edouard Balladur, France's Prime Minister, yesterday took the first step on what he hopes is the road to the Elysee Palace. Mr Balladur, the leading contender to become French President, made his candidacy for office official in a 10- minutetelevision address, writes Andrew Marshall.

Mr Balladur sought to appear patrician, paternalist, and conciliatory. "I am not the candidate of any party. What I want is to govern for all the French people, without distinction, without exclusion," he said, evoking the name of General De Gaulle.

"It is neccessary to believe in France," he said. He was dressed in a sober grey suit with white shirt and blue polka-dot tie, though it was not possible to see if he was wearing his trademark red socks. Conscious of public distaste over recent politicalscandals, he said he would "restore civic morals, fight against corruption and ensure security and respect for the laws and citizens' rights as guaranteed by the judicial system".

Since his election in 1993, the Prime Minister has had to "cohabit" with a Socialist President, and he said that electing him would mean restoring "the unity of command''.

Mr Balladur - a more sceptical advocate of European integration than Francois Mitterrand, the current President - said that it was necessary to "make France the motor of European progress''. Mr Balladur's long-awaited decision to run means the RPR, one of the ruling parties, now has two members in the field. Jacques Chirac, the founder of the party that sought to revitalise Gaullism in the 1970s, is also on the campaign trail, but is far behind Mr Balladur in the polls.

Jean-Louis Debre, spokesman for the RPR, said that Mr Balladur's announcement was regrettable, adding: "I was very struck to see that he took up systematically the themes of Jacques Chirac. Why, then, is he a candidate?"

Although Mr Balladur is far ahead in the opinion polls, the spring election is far from being a one-horse race. Indeed, there is a profusion of alternatives on offer. Jean-Marie Le Pen, the leader of the far-right National Front, will be a candidate, as will Philippe De Villiers, leader of the anti-Maastrichteers, Robert Hue, leader of the Communists, and possibly three candidates for the Green movement. But it is in the mainstream right and left that there is real chaos.

The RPR has two candidates, Mr Balladur and Mr Chirac. and the UDF, France's other main ruling centre-right group, looks set to put forward a candidate. Raymond Barre, former Prime Minister, looks set to break cover soon; if he does not, then Charles Millon, the UDF's parliamentary leader, has said he will stand. It has still not been ruled out that Giscard D'Estaing, the former President, will put his own name forward.

But several parties within the UDF - including the Republicans, and the CDS - have said that they will vote for Mr Balladur, which Herve de Charette, an associate of Mr Giscard's, said was "rather regrettable".

The Socialist Party has still to decide who will represent it, and an internal war is raging over the decision of Lionel Jospin, former education minister, to put himself forward. Henri Emmanuelli, the party's first secretary, Mr Jospin's main opponent, yesterday put himself forward as a possible candidate.

On Tuesday night, Jack Lang, the former culture minister, also put himself forward. The latest opinion polls are not quite so pessimistic about the Socialists' chances. They show a candidate of the left could make it into the second round of voting, if they can unite the Socialists and the centre-left Radicals.

However, the success of the man with red socks is alarming both left and right, which can see their chances of even getting through to the second round slipping away. Alain Juppe, France's foreign minister and one of Mr Chirac's supporters, is looking gloomier by the day, but yesterday he said: "Everything is still possible."