Celebration fails to heal Gaullist divide

With France swiftly returning to normal after the two-week lorry-drivers' protest, the country's ruling Gaullists turned out in force to celebrate the 20th anniversary of their party, the Rassemblement pour la Republique (Rally for the Republic).

At 20 regional meetings across France, including a 5,000-strong gathering in Paris, party members heard a call from the Prime Minister and RPR leader, Alain Juppe, to banish "depression" and fight for victory in the 1998 parliamentary elections.

Despite elaborate stage management, yesterday's festivities had a defensive quality and only served to underline the difficulties that face the French right less than two years after it won back the presidency from the Socialists.

The decision to hold regional festivities rather than one giant national gathering, as for the 10th anniversary in 1986, was calculated to address criticism that the party's leaders have become remote from the rank and file. Government ministers were urged to attend one or more local events while Mr Juppe set the tone by speaking at Agen, in his native region of Aquitaine, before flying to Paris to address the meeting here.

The whereabouts and attitude of President Jacques Chirac, who founded the RPR in 1976 as a scarcely disguised vehicle to gain the presidency, however, were a mystery. Leader of the party for most of its existence - until he resigned to campaign for the presidency in October 1994 - he did not even send a celebratory message.

As President, Mr Chirac has steadfastly upheld the idea that the head of state should be seen to represent all the French and has stayed away from party events. His silence yesterday was also interpreted as a move to boost Mr Juppe's authority at the head of the RPR. Even since his formal election to the post a year ago, Mr Juppe has suffered from the fact that other Gaullists of a more traditional stamp - Philippe Seguin and Charles Pasqua among them - are far more popular than he is.

Yesterday, in a decision believed to have Mr Chirac's blessing, it was Mr Seguin who attended the RPR celebrations at Egletons in the president's home department of the Correze. Egletons was where Mr Chirac announced his intention to form the new party.

Neither the ideological division, nor the change in generations that the formation of the RPR represented, however, solved the problem of finding an ideology and a leader able to unite all those who would claim to be Gaullists in France. Mr Juppe laughed this off in his speech yesterday, saying the problem was that "some RPR members claim to be more Gaullist than others".

The decision of Mr Chirac and Edouard Balladur to contest the last presidential election left the RPR divided according to personal loyalties. Last week witnessed a further division, as MPs from the RPR's traditionalist wing supported their old enemy, Valery Giscard D'Estaing, against the new guard of Mr Juppe on the question of a single currency.

n The ambassador of Zaire to France, Ramazani Baya, is being recalled following a road accident in the Riviera town of Menton in which two French adolescents were killed. Public pressure had been mounting for the ambassador, who is said to have been driving at 120km per hour in a 40km zone, to have his diplomatic immunity lifted and face trial.