Balladur tries to rally RPR after Chirac attack

EDOUARD BALLADUR tried to rally the Gaullist RPR party behind him yesterday after Jacques Chirac, his rival for the forthcoming presidential nomination, berated his style of government. The Prime Minister reminded cabinet ministers that they must not get involved in the presidential campaign until the New Year, recalling at a meeting of Gaullist parliamentarians in the Alsace city of Colmar that it was 25 years since a Gaullist was last elected President.

Mr Balladur's low-key approach had little of the verve of Mr Chirac's attack the previous day on 'immobility' and 'passivity'. Mr Chirac, the RPR president and mayor of Paris, told his supporters that Gaullism 'above all, means having a little more soul', apparently laying his claim to the almost mystical quality that the self-appointed heirs of De Gaulle seek.

Perhaps summing up for the bulk of the parliamentarians, Eric Raoult, a 39-year-old National Assembly deputy from the Paris suburbs, accorded the Prime Minister some faint praise and said he was sure the Chirac-Balladur duel would come to 'a happy end' with just one Gaullist candidate standing in next May's presidential election. 'I hope it will be Jacques Chirac,' he said. 'We need a visionary. The Prime Minister is a good manager.'

The message that Mr Balladur is a good prime minister and should go no higher has been a theme of recent Gaullist gatherings. Mr Raoult said 'the winning ticket would be Chirac for President and Balladur for Prime Minister; the losing ticket would be Balladur against Chirac.' While many Gaullists may be pro-Chirac, opinion polls show that Mr Balladur is by far and away the favourite of the public. With the same polls showing that Mr Balladur could beat all comers, as Jacques Delors, the most likely Socialist candidate, would beat Mr Chirac, the question of which man the RPR should finally back is becoming crucial.

It has become all the more urgent this month since Francois Mitterrand's state of health could mean the Socialist President may have to step down before the end of his mandate next May.

In his speech, Mr Balladur - whose calm and conciliatory approach to government earned him Mr Chirac's contempt for a 'false consensus' becoming a 'pretext for immobility' - told his fellow Gaullists that not since Georges Pompidou's election in 1969 had a Gaullist been chosen for the Elysee Palace. This was a clear warning that divisions now could once again open the door to a candidate from another party.

The problem, Mr Balladur said, was 'how to ensure union'. Using the name of Charles de Gaulle several times in his address, he said the Gaullists should seek to be 'those who express the aspirations of all of France. That is how we can be faithful to the lesson of General de Gaulle, our guide.'

Recalling his rule that ministers should stay out of the presidential campaign, a guideline broken at least twice this month, he said this did not stop 'a debate of ideas'. In the shadow-boxing leading up to the campaign, the pretenders including Mr Chirac have been shy of declaring themselves outright candidates, saying instead that they wish to participate in the 'presidential debate'.