Chirac made lame duck as Seguin seizes party crown

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The Independent Online
President Chirac, having lost control of the French government, has lost control of the party which he founded 21 years ago.

Worse, the leadership of the RPR or neo-Gaullist party will pass next month to Philippe Seguin, a man Mr Chirac distrusts (with some reason), and a man who may well try to oust him from the Elysee Palace in five years' time.

Mr Chirac's position is now weak in the extreme. He is, in effect, a duck with two lame feet. His decision to call an early legislative election robbed him of an overwhelming parliamentary majority. It has also dissolved what had seemed to be an unassailable position of strength within his own party, and within the wider alliance of the French centre-right.

On Wednesday night, Mr Chirac's long-time acolyte, Alain Juppe, the former Prime Minister, announced that he would stand down as RPR president next month. Since the election defeat of the Right 11 days ago, the President has tried several manoeuvres to preserve Mr Juppe, or another Chirac loyalist, in the job. It became clear that this strategy, if pursued, would split or destroy an angry and vengeful party. Mr Chirac must now grit his teeth and watch Mr Seguin, the new favourite of the neo-Gaullist grass roots, claim the RPR leadership at a special party conference on 6 July.

Although there is no formal reason why he should not remain President until 2002, Mr Chirac's double political isolation leaves him vulnerable to untoward developments in the several investigations which are under way into the doubtful finances of the neo-Gaullists. President Mitterrand, defeated in a parliamentary election in 1986, managed to turn his first period of "co-habitation" with the Right to his advantage; if the new Socialist government suffers significant reverses, President Chirac's stock may yet rise again.

President Mitterrand, however, had to co-habit for only two years, not five. He retained control of his own Socialist party. He enjoyed the amusing machiavellian possibilities offered by the twilight world of divided government.

President Chirac, by contrast, is an impulsive man used to being in control. According to friends who have visited him in the last week, he has plunged into a post-electoral depression. One friend told the investigative and satirical newspaper, Le Canard Enchaine: "He's doing what he always does when things go against him. He's eating a lot of charcuterie, drinking a lot of beer and watching a lot of television."

The emergence of Mr Seguin, 54, as the new RPR leader is replete with ironies, completing a full-circle of back-stabbing within the party. It was Mr Seguin who came to Mr Chirac's rescue in 1995, running his successful campaign for the presidency, after Edouard Balladur, a long-time friend and party colleague, seemed to be about to snatch the prize. Far from rewarding Mr Seguin, President Chirac heaped all the spoils - the Prime Ministership, the presidency of the RPR - on Mr Juppe.

Mr Seguin has been fuming, not so quietly, ever since. As the champion of the statist, populist, Euro-sceptic, almost social-democratic tradition of Gaullism, he watched in despair as the Chirac-Juppe government opted for the European single currency and the shrinking of the French state. Although he has declared his undying loyalty to the President this week, he is expected to use his new office to try to rebuild the shattered RPR as a vehicle for his own political ambitions. Mr Seguin is almost certain to run against Mr Chirac in the first round in 2002.

His emergence as RPR president does little, however, to improve the coherence of the neo-Gaullist party. He has the support, for now, of Mr Balladur's faction, but they are enthusiastic supporters of EMU, market freedom and shrinking the welfare state. The blood-letting is far from over ...