Chirac stages a comeback: Yesterday's man looks good today, writes Julian Nundy in Paris

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The Independent Online
IN the space of a weekend - with a little help from his friends - Jacques Chirac has stopped looking like yesterday's man. Mr Chirac, 61, president of the Gaullist RPR party, has for the past 18 months been eclipsed by Edouard Balladur, the Gaullist Prime Minister. In one opinion poll after another, Mr Balladur looked more and more like the natural Gaullist candidate for the presidential elections next spring when Francois Mitterrand's term ends.

Over the weekend, as the Gaullist RPR held its 'summer university' in Bordeaux, some important elements of the party apparatus swung unexpectedly and unequivocally behind Mr Chirac. 'Summer universities' are held by all main French political parties for their various youth movements; they are a sort of informal congress to galvanise young militants and lay down the line for the year ahead.

The correct presidential line was suggested by Alain Juppe, the Foreign Minister and RPR Secretary-General. He called on Mr Chirac 'to show the way; he knows you'll be there - and I with you - to follow him'. As the third-ranking Gaullist in government, behind Mr Balladur himself and Interior Minister, Charles Pasqua, Mr Juppe was taking something of a risk. If Mr Balladur does decide to make a presidential bid, it could be difficult for Mr Juppe to remain in the cabinet.

Mr Juppe's stance was reinforced by Philippe Seguin, the National Assembly president, or parliament speaker, who was the chief Gaullist campaigner against the Maastricht European Union treaty two years ago. He, too, jumped into the Chirac camp, saying that Mr Chirac's presidential ambitions were 'an open secret'. An obvious absentee was Mr Pasqua, a Chirac loyalist until a year ago who is now hedging his bets.

Mr Balladur was appointed Prime Minister with Mr Chirac's blessing after parliamentary elections brought the right into power 18 months ago. Mr Pasqua, one of the leading Gaullist 'barons', warned Mr Chirac at the time that he was making a mistake. As head of the biggest party in parliament, Mr Chirac had first claim on the premiership; he chose to remain aloof, remembering his bruising experience as a 'co-habiting' right-wing premier to Mr Mitterrand's Socialist president in the 1980s. Mr Pasqua said that, by thrusting Mr Balladur forward, Mr Chirac was playing 'Belgian roulette; every chamber has a bullet'.

So it has proved. In an bid by Chirac supporters to retrieve the situation, the message from Bordeaux was that Mr Balladur was a very good Prime Minister, a good number two, and that was his place. The media saw this as a device to 'contain' Mr Balladur, to stop him going further.

Mr Chirac reinforced the point in a brief appearance in Bordeaux. He had wanted Mr Balladur to become Prime Minister, he said, 'and I did what I could. I don't regret it'. Mr Chirac said the RPR could not afford 'divisions' and 'quarrels' although it was 'human' to show ambition.

Leading ministers from the centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF), the Gaullists' coalition partner in government, meanwhile, made it clear that they wanted one candidate to represent both parties and their choice was clear: Edouard Balladur.

Defence Minister Francois Leotard and Gerard Longuet, the Industry Minister, who have been pushing for a single conservative candidate, have their own internal party battle. They want to prevent Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the founder of their political group who has become a bitter rival, from trying a comeback.

Mr Balladur and Jacques Delors, the outgoing European Commission president and the only left-wing French politician with a chance of taking the Elysee Palace, have been keen not to announce their candidatures, apparently with the aim of doing so at the last possible moment.

Mr Chirac, who was Prime Minister under both Mr Giscard d'Estaing and Mr Mitterrand, is being pushed by his backers to throw caution to the winds and announce his candidature soon, to take the high ground first and, principally, stymie a Balladur bid. Mr Chirac may do so in two weeks' time, after a meeting of his campaign team on 20 September.