Balladur braves rioting fishermen: Aloof French Prime Minister confronts the anger of ordinary people for the first time

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EDOUARD BALLADUR ran into violent fishermen's protests when he visited the Breton city of Rennes yesterday. He tried to reason with demonstrators, saying 'violence has never made anything better'.

The Gaullist Prime Minister, who had decided to make his trip to Brittany despite violence this week by fishermen protesting against falling prices and cheap imports, spoke against the thud of tear-gas grenades as CRS riot police and gendarmes fought to control a crowd of around 5,000 people. Demonstrators, some of them masked with scarves, threw paving stones at police.

One protester's hand was ripped off by a tear-gas grenade which exploded as he picked it up to throw back at riot police. At one point a bus was hijacked, driven at police lines and set alight.

Jean-Michel Boucheron, a local Socialist member of the National Assembly, was clubbed by demonstrators and had to be treated in hospital. Edmond Herve, the city's Socialist mayor and a former health minister, was also hit.

The Interior Ministry said that some 20 policemen had been hurt in three and a half hours of clashes, one of them seriously, and 10 demonstrators were reported injured.

On Thursday, Breton fishermen invaded the Rungis food markets near Paris, smashing equipment and destroying fish stocks before heading for the Channel ports and more havoc.

Britain protested against the destruction of British fish by protesters as Paris asked European partners for measures against cheap imports, especially from East Europe and Russia. Yesterday the Commission said it would set minimum prices for six species of white fish and Atlantic salmon from non-EU countries.

On Wednesday, the French government approved a package of measures worth 300m francs ( pounds 34m) to help the fishing industry and individual fishermen. In Rennes yesterday, Jean Puech, the Agriculture and Fisheries Minister, said additional measures would include the halving of social security contributions by fishermen for the first six months of this year.

The concessions already granted to the fishermen represented another instance in which the Balladur government has tried to placate militant opponents since the right took power after parliamentary elections last March. In October, it withdrew a plan for redundancies at Air France after airline employees blocked runways at the Paris airports.

Last month, after a plan to vote extra funds to private schools was ruled unconstitutional by the Constitutional Council and just before a mass demonstration against the proposal, the govermnent offered extra money for state schools and a round table on education to cool passions.

Mr Balladur, whose high standing in opinion polls has made him the most likely, if so far unannounced, successor to Francois Mitterrand in next year's presidential election, has to steer a careful course to maintain his position.

On Tuesday, Jean-Louis Debre, the deputy secretary-general of the Gaullist RPR party, criticised a package of measures against unemployment announced by Mr Balladur last weekend as not being 'the alternative policies' the Gaullists had hoped for.

This was interpreted as an attack by the supporters of Jacques Chirac, the RPR president and mayor of Paris, who want to see Mr Chirac take the presidency next year. It seemed to presage an intra-RPR rift until Mr Chirac said on Wednesday evening that he fully supported Mr Balladur's government and programme.

Yesterday's incidents in Rennes, however, were the first time Mr Balladur has confronted the anger of ordinary people. The often aloof Prime Minister has dropped slightly in the polls since his handling of the education issue. The public perception of how he deals with confrontation could bear heavily on his presidential credibility.