`Doudou' Balladur woos voters to a disco beat

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The Independent Online
Edouard Balladur, with his Savile Row suits and formal manners, is not, you would think, a man who delights in answering to the endearment ``Doudou'', or even claiming a slogan that reads ``France with Edouard''. Still less would you imagine him standing, willingly, on a table, waving his arms in time to disco music. This weekend, however, Mr Balladur found himself doing all three - and all for the sake of becoming France's next president.

The occasion was a day-long spectacular, a festival for Balladurists, nearly 20,000 of whom had been transported from all over the country to a series of disused aircraft hangars that now form the exhibition ground at Le Bourget, north-east of Paris.

The skies were grey and a cold wind blew the paper cups over,but the fete was well organised and scheduled almost to the minute. There was an abundance of food and drink - crpes and cider from Brittany, cassoulet from Toulouse, oysters and Muscadet at 20 francs a portion, and bottles of Champagne for 100 francs with labels that read ``The Marne is for Balladur''. There were merry-go-rounds and games for the children, comedians and rock groups for the ``youth with Balladur'', and plenty of chairs for the aged and just plain tired.

And then, at 3 o'clock, there was a big political speech by ``Doudou'' that was perpetually interrupted with chants of ``Edouard for President'' from the expertly orchestrated cheer-leaders. So unused was the Prime Minister to all this, that one of his aides had to whisper to him that the chanting was the cue for him to grin and wave his arms in triumph - not tell the audience to calm down.

That the Balladur camp decided to mount such an exercise at all showed the extent to which this presidential campaign has become voter-led. Instead of setting out their political wares, presenting themselves as men of principle and inviting the electorate to choose, the three main candidates seem to be adapting their methods and their policies to what they think the voters want - or at least, what seems to be working for their opponents.

One of the great strengths of Jacques Chirac, current favourite to win the election, is his popular touch and his perceived accessibility. Mr Balladur's attempts at populism - his visits to flood victims in January, his attempt to pat a cow at an agricultural show - were widely ridiculed. Saturday's fete was an unashamed attempt to show that Mr Balladur could be a ``man of the people'', and he did his best. His very amateurishness may even have won him a few more votes. In his address, he actually ``sold'' himself as an ``amateur'' and contrasted himself thus with Mr Chirac, whom he accused - not by name - of ``demagogy''.

This was a complete contrast to his earlier campaign pitch, which had stressed both his experience and professionalism as Prime Minister, and his desire not to have the campaign become a personal slanging match.

For all the indignities the Prime Minister had to suffer on Saturday, the fete was judged a huge success in helping to remotivate his somewhat jaded supporters.

And there were signs that Mr Balladur himself was starting to relish the battle: ``I will fight to the end,'' he said in an interview last week. His performance at the fete suggested that he meant it.