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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Electronic Service Engineer - Television & HI-FI

£17000 - £21000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Engineers for field & bench ser...

Recruitment Genius: Digital Designer - Award Winning Agency

£30000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A fantastic opportunity for a t...

Recruitment Genius: Project Manager

£35000 - £50000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This global provider of call ce...

Recruitment Genius: Customer Service and Business Support Assistant

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: By developing intimate relationships with inte...

Day In a Page

Blundering Tony Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

Blundering Blair quits as Middle East peace envoy – only Israel will miss him

For Arabs – and for Britons who lost their loved ones in his shambolic war in Iraq – his appointment was an insult, says Robert Fisk
Fifa corruption arrests: All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue

Fifa corruption arrests

All hail the Feds for riding to football's rescue, says Ian Herbert
Isis in Syria: The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of President Assad and militant fighters

The Kurdish enclave still resisting the tyranny of Assad and Isis

In Syrian Kurdish cantons along the Turkish border, the progressive aims of the 2011 uprising are being enacted despite the war. Patrick Cockburn returns to Amuda
How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields: Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape the US

How I survived Cambodia's Killing Fields

Acclaimed surgeon SreyRam Kuy celebrates her mother's determination to escape to the US
Stephen Mangan interview: From posh buffoon to pregnant dad, the actor has quite a range

How Stephen Mangan got his range

Posh buffoon, hapless writer, pregnant dad - Mangan is certainly a versatile actor
The ZX Spectrum has been crowd-funded back into play - with some 21st-century tweaks

The ZX Spectrum is back

The ZX Spectrum was the original - and for some players, still the best. David Crookes meets the fans who've kept the games' flames lit
Grace of Monaco film panned: even the screenwriter pours scorn on biopic starring Nicole Kidman

Even the screenwriter pours scorn on Grace of Monaco biopic

The critics had a field day after last year's premiere, but the savaging goes on
Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people used to believe about periods

Menstrual Hygiene Day: The strange ideas people once had about periods

If one was missed, vomiting blood was seen as a viable alternative
The best work perks: From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)

The quirks of work perks

From free travel cards to making dreams come true (really)
Is bridge the latest twee pastime to get hip?

Is bridge becoming hip?

The number of young players has trebled in the past year. Gillian Orr discovers if this old game has new tricks
Long author-lists on research papers are threatening the academic work system

The rise of 'hyperauthorship'

Now that academic papers are written by thousands (yes, thousands) of contributors, it's getting hard to tell workers from shirkers
The rise of Lego Clubs: How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships

The rise of Lego Clubs

How toys are helping children struggling with social interaction to build better relationships
5 best running glasses

On your marks: 5 best running glasses

Whether you’re pounding pavements, parks or hill passes, keep your eyes protected in all weathers
Joe Root: 'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

'Ben Stokes gives everything – he’s rubbing off on us all'

Joe Root says the England dressing room is a happy place again – and Stokes is the catalyst
Raif Badawi: Wife pleads for fresh EU help as Saudi blogger's health worsens

Please save my husband

As the health of blogger Raif Badawi worsens in prison, his wife urges EU governments to put pressure on the Saudi Arabian royal family to allow her husband to join his family in Canada