Chirac strikes out in favour of the workers

CAMPAIGN NOTEBOOK

The weather is wonderful, the presidential candidates are promising everybody a rosier future but France is suddenly alive with the sound of strikes. The social-security services , the post office, banks, railways, the domestic airline, Air Inter, - and even the Louvre - are all being hit by stoppages.

Strikes are unusual during French election campaigns but even more unusual has been the reaction of the leading right-wing candidates in the election. Far from holding up the stoppages as evidence of left-wing irresponsibility, the Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, has maintained a non-committal silence, while the Gaullist front-runner, Jacques Chirac, has been positively sympathetic. Indeed, an opinion poll published yesterday indicated that Mr Chirac was considered the candidate most likely to let wages rise after years of belt-tightening.

The unions can recognise a politician playing to the electoral gallery when they see one. They are busy warning that the winning candidate will not be given breathing-space after the two-round presidential elections ends on 7 May.

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Which of their conservative cousins would John Major and Douglas Hurd like to see as next president?

All the indications are that the government in London and the embassy in Paris are as unsure as the 30 per cent of undecided voters in opinion polls.

For a time, Britain believed it had a friend in Mr Balladur, who was thought to be ready to reconsider France's long-standing and exclusive partnership with Germany. But Mr Balladur now seems keen on keeping the relationship down to two partners.

Mr Balladur's main rival on the right, Mr Chirac, approaches Europe with a distinctly Gaullist attachment to national sovereignty, which might make him seem more in tune with Mr Major. Mr Chirac's RPR party also includes a cohort of Euro-sceptics, including the National Assembly president, Philippe Sguin, who would hold high office under a Chirac presidency.

But the front-runner's reservations about closer European unity would be prompted simply by his desire to promote French interests.

Mr Chirac is, as a senior Foreign Office figure said recently, a nationalist first and last - "We could do business with him when French and British interests coincided, but how often does that happen?"

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Brigitte Bardot, Mstislav Rostropovich and the creator of Astrix all have something in common. They figure among 80 names on Mr Chirac's "cultural support committee". The Mayor of Paris is not known for his deep artistic interests - he is said to be most at home with thrillers and Westerns (though he also has a taste for Oriential art). But his campaign organisers have decided it is time for him to drum up support among France's traditionally left-wing cultural community. The list unveiled this week is designed to hit all the bases, from the flautist Jean-Pierre Rampal and the historian Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie to the veteran rock singer Johnny Hallyday and the star of Paris's best-known transvestite cabaret, Michou. One of the most popular names on the list , the television comedian Patrick Sebastian, is in hot water because he let his political enthusiasm spill on to the screen on Saturday. He included a satirical sketch in his show depicting the minence grise of Mr Balladur, the small and perfectly formed Budget Minister, Nicolas Sarkozy, rubbing himself against the Prime Minister's leg like a dog on heat. The management of the television channel loves Sebastian for his ratings, but is having kittens about what might happen to it if Mr Balladur wins and makes Mr Sarkozy his Prime Minister.

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