Chirac's party fails to boost morale

Activists of France's Gaullist RPR party turned out in force yesterday to mark the first anniversary of Jacques Chirac's election victory and hear the Prime Minister and party president, Alain Juppe, promise a five- year reform of public spending and taxation for the autumn.

But the mood at the one-day national convention in Paris was very far from the euphoria of a year ago and all the professionalism of the Gaullist party machine was unable to disguise strong undercurrents of anxiety and personal rivalry.

Party officials had hoped that the convention would seal the "reconciliation" of the party rank and file with Mr Juppe, who succeeded Mr Chirac as party leader last autumn. Mr Juppe, who has worked hard in recent months to project a more popular and sympathetic image, in which social projects and babies have loomed large, none the less found himself upstaged yesterday by two of the party's genuine populists, Charles Pasqua, the former interior minister, and Philippe Seguin, chairman of the National Assembly.

Promotional films on the party's record, which punctuated stage-managed policy "debates", operated embarrassingly like popularity tests. The 4,500 delegates applauded their favourites and left telling silences whenever Mr Juppe and certain members of his government appeared. His own address, which closed the convention, relied for appeal largely on references to Mr Pasqua and Mr Chirac who, eschewing party politics since his election as President, stayed away.

One purpose of the convention was to chart a course for the 1998 parliamentary elections and announce a major recruitment drive to boost the party's position. At present, the centre-right coalition formed by the Gaullists and the UDF grouping, holds three-quarters of parliamentary seats, won in the 1993 landslide.

The problem for the Gaullists is not only the impossibility of replicating the 1993 results, but the difficulty of combating a threat that now issues from many different quarters at once. One of these is the record of Mr Juppe's government, which may be why he attenuated his statements of last week about slashing public spending over the coming year, with a promise to couple that with a plan to "relieve the pressure of taxation".

Another comprises the external risks from left and right. The risk from the right comes from the far right. At present, the National Front is not represented in parliament. If, however, it can repeat its presidential election showing of 15 per cent, it could hold a balance in a finely balanced parliament. This eventuality terrifies the mainstream left and right.

But other risks to the centre-right majority are internal: from supporters of former prime minister, Edouard Balladur and the recent election of the ambitious Francois Leotard as leader of the UDF - currently the junior partner in the coalition.

Both Mr Juppe yesterday and the RPR general secretary, Jean-Francois Mancel, made a point of exhorting Gaullists to stick with the coalition as though this was in doubt. The Gaullists were told in no uncertain terms that unless they retained the coalition, the chances of remaining in government beyond 1998 were nil.

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