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Chirac rival resigns as Gaullists fall out

ONLY THE French centre-right could manage to fall out savagely in the middle of a war and the quarrel have nothing to do with the war. Or nothing much to do with it.

Philippe Seguin, president of the Gaullist RPR, resigned yesterday with a bitter attack on the party's founder, his long-ime colleague, and rival, Jacques Chirac. He accused the President, in effect, of plotting with rivals behind his back and failing to support their own party's campaign for the European elections in June.

Although Mr Seguin has been notably faint in public in his support for French involvement in the Balkans war, the Gaullist leader made no reference to the conflict in his brutally worded, resignation letter. The real quarrel is personal, tactical and electoral.

The parties of the French centre-right - the Gaullists, the centrist UDF and the right-wing Democratie Liberale - have been in self-destructive disarray since President Chirac called and lost an early parliamentary election two years ago. They failed to agree a common platform for the European elections, threatening Mr Chirac's hopes of uniting the right for his own presidential re-election campaign in 2002.

The pro-European UDF, under its new leader, Francois Bayrou, refused to join a common European election platform with the Gaullists while Mr Seguin - a partially recanted Eurosceptic - was leader of the campaign. Mr Seguin, 56 next week, who still harbours presidential ambitions of his own, refused to stand aside Mr Seguin was also furious with President Chirac for taking a soft line on domestic reforms proposed by the centre- left government of Lionel Jospin.

In recent weeks, relations between Mr Seguin and President Chirac have collapsed. The head of the "Friends of Jacques Chirac" said that the President's supporters did not have to vote for the RPR in the European poll. They could also vote for Mr Bayrou's Euro-federalist UDF or a Eurosceptic right-wing list.

It made Chirac pro-European federalism and anti-federal at the same time. It stabbed Mr Seguin in the back. But it had one great virtue. It kept open President Chirac's links with the wider centre-right that he will need in his campaign in 2002.

Mr Seguin asked President Chirac to disavow this statement; instead he had a high-profile meeting with Mr Bayrou. Seguin supporters believe that this was part of a deliberate strategy to force him to resign and then create a common, centre-right list for the European election after all. If so, it worked.

Mr Seguin may now emerge as a public opponent of the Balkans war, even though opinion polls are hugely in favour and give almost 80 per cent backing to President Chirac's conduct of the campaign. He may also stand against President Chirac in 2002. But the likelihood is that his career as a serious contender in French politics is finished: something that will cause the President of the Republic to lose no sleep at all.