Cohabitation begins with a honeymoon: Simone Veil proves a happy choice to take over a Paris hot seat. Julian Nundy reports

THERE WERE two reasons to be happy, said Bernard Tapie, minister for towns in the defeated Socialist government. The first was that the new conservative leaders were keeping the portfolio dealing with the troubled suburbs; the second was that it had gone to Simone Veil.

The occasion was the passation des pouvoirs, when French ministers hand over their ministries. They are usually tense occasions. Last week, as the humiliated Socialists left office, they were anything but tense, and the happiest ceremony of all was Mrs Veil's.

The centrist Mrs Veil, now 65 and one of France's most popular politicians, was back in government for the first time since 1979. Of the three portfolios she took over, towns and health were from the most mediatique members of the previous government: Mr Tapie, the businessman who is chairman of the Olympique Marseille football club, and Bernard Kouchner, the founder of the Medecins sans Frontieres charity. The third, social affairs, had been held by Rene Teulade.

Mrs Veil, who spent her adolescence in Auschwitz, to which she was deported with other French Jews, is a symbol for tolerance in modern France. As health minister under President Valery Giscard d'Estaing from 1974 to 1979, she introduced the law legalising abortion. She left that government to become the president of the first directly elected European Parliament.

She is a fervent opponent of the far-right, anti-immigration National Front. When Jean-Marie Le Pen, the Front's leader, suggested on television last September that President Francois Mitterrand's prostate operation had been timed to coincide with the Maastricht referendum, Mrs Veil attacked the charge as 'vile'.

Her appointment to the streamlined cabinet of Edouard Balladur was no surprise. What did make news was that she became the senior minister in the government, second only to Mr Balladur - an acknowledgement of the affection she commands.

France has just lived through one of the most remarkable weeks in its modern political history - even though everyone knew what was going to happen months in advance.

As expected, the alliance of the Gaullist RPR party and the centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF) won National Assembly elections last Sunday by a landslide. Edouard Balladur, 63, tipped for the Prime Minister's post 18 months ago, was indeed appointed. What astonished the public was that those involved behaved so well. The politicians, on whom the French blame their ills and whom they consider corrupt and sleazy, were dignified.

The conservatives were anything but triumphalist as the returns showed they would take 484 (83 per cent) of the National Assembly's 577 seats. In defeat, the Socialists took on a new stature as they quietly expressed their determination to uphold the ideals of the left and were heard out with respect by their conservative opponents.

The tone was set on Monday, when Mr Mitterrand made his first post-election statement. If he had followed the pattern of 1986, when France had its first 'cohabitation' - a conservative cabinet under the Socialist President - he would not actually have named the new prime minister, but only indicated the likely candidate, leaving the appointment until the next day.

This time, he went straight to the point and, paying tribute to the new man's 'competence', named Mr Balladur. When the new Prime Minister went to the Elysee Palace straight after the broadcast, a microphone was placed on the steps for him to announce his acceptance, an unusual courtesy. The normal protocol would have been for Mr Balladur to make his first statement from the Prime Minister's office.

Mr Mitterrand's gesture made it clear that he respected the strength of the new government, although he stressed he would keep the President's traditional right of overseeing defence and foreign affairs. If Mr Mitterrand behaved well, however, the hero in the good manners stakes was Mr Balladur. Even Le Monde, hardly a friend of the Gaullists in recent years, summed up his week with the front-page headline: 'Faultless'. After the first cabinet meeting under Mr Mitterrand, the word used to describe the atmosphere was 'courteous'.

Often mocked for his old-style courtliness, Mr Balladur was evidently anxious to reassure the President that he would be respected, doubtless with the quid pro quo that Mr Mitterrand would let the government work without hindrance. If the pattern of the early days persists, Mr Mitterrand could serve out the last two years of his term until 1995 in harmony and dignity.

Even the new National Assembly's opening day on Friday was smooth, despite fears of chaos with 100 deputies sitting for the first time. Its first task was to elect a president, or speaker. The doyen of the assembly, Charles Ehrmann, 82, asked deputies not to let the voting run the maximum three rounds, but to give an absolute majority earlier - 'I have a plane to catch.' In the event, Philippe Seguin, the Gaullist leader of the anti-Maastricht campaign last year, was elected in the second round.

Behind this election, although few deputies would admit it, was an obvious attempt to contain Mr Giscard d'Estaing of the UDF, who had dropped hints that he was interested in the job.

Settling scores after their massive election defeat, Socialist Party barons ousted First Secretary Laurent Fabius yesterday in a bitter split that may torpedo hopes to rebuild the French left, AP reports. The party's executive committee voted to install a provisional leadership, meaning Mr Fabius and other leaders no longer held their jobs. Before the vote was taken Mr Fabius refused to shake the hand of Michel Rocard, the Socialist front-runner for the presidency, who backed the attempt to remove him.

(Photograph omitted)

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