As Chevenement flounces out, Jospin's prestige takes a knock

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The resignation has been so long drawn out - seven weeks at least - that it finally happened more as an anti-climax than a government crisis.

The resignation has been so long drawn out - seven weeks at least - that it finally happened more as an anti-climax than a government crisis.

But the departure yesterday of the French Interior Minister, Jean-Pierre Chevÿnement, on a point of principle was still a blow to his old friend, the Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin. The premier has already lost three "heavyweights" from his cabinet in the past nine months, and will lose another, Martine Aubry, in October. Mr Jospin now faces an awkward 21-month run up to the presidential elections in 2002.

The country is growing irritable as the economic boom fails to trickle down to street, home or wallet level. The Prime Minister is in danger of losing his most valuable asset; his reputation as a calm, skilful manager of events and people.

He replaced Mr Chevÿnement with Daniel Vaillant,Minister for Parliamentary Relations and a Jospin loyalist, but not regarded as a heavy hitter.

Mr Chevÿnement, the head of a small, left-wing splinter group, the Citizen's Movement, resigned because he detests the plan - Mr Jospin's personal plan - to give limited autonomy to Corsica. He believes the plan betrays the French "republican" tradition of a single state and a single people.

This is the third time Mr Chevÿnement, 61, has resigned from government. Each time he has gone on a point of principle: the failure of the government to live up to his ideal of a "republican France", a strong, interventionist state run from the centre, with little time for either Brussels or Washington.

As principled (rather than forced) resignations are rare in all countries, the former industry, defence and now interior minister must be heading for some kind of record. Some French press commentary (mostly on the right) paid tribute to his high ideals yesterday. Other newspapers made fun of his pomposity and rigidity.

Mr Chevÿnement struck a characteristically Gaullist pose. "Wherever I find myself I will continue to serve the interests of our country, according to the idea that I have of it," he said. This came close - probably deliberately - to de Gaulle's "certain idea of France".

Some commentators predict Mr Chevÿnement will run against Mr Jospin, his friend for 30 years, for the centre-left "nomination" in the first round of the presidential election. This is probably the least of Mr Jospin's worries. Mr Chevÿnement's party has almost as many officials as members and commands less than 5 per cent of the national vote.

But the minister's departure is important for two reasons. It puts a further spoke in the wheel of Mr Jospin's risky plan for Corsican autonomy. The Prime Minister had gambled that his proposals would immediately prove their worth by bringing relative peace to the Mediterranean island. There has, in fact, been an upsurge of violence, including the murder of a prominent nationalist. The loss of Mr Chevÿnement, a figure broadly popular with both right and left and an important component in the coalition, makes Mr Jospin's Corsican initiative look more than ever ill-conceived.

More importantly, it makes the Prime Minister look clumsy. There is already a growing sense of impatience and irritation with the centre-left government in France, in some ways similar to the difficulties being faced by Tony Blair in Britain.

The French economy has been booming for three-and-a-half years, and unemployment is falling rapidly. But the levels of take-home pay have stagnated, and petrol prices are soaring. Many French people complain that the boom has passed them by.

Mr Jospin, in an attempt to show that he is in control of events, is expected to endorse some form of spectacular, tax-cutting announcement - maybe including the abolition of the French equivalent of road-fund taxes - in the next few days.

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