Balladur cracks whip over fractious right-wing ministers

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The Independent Online
THE FRENCH Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, yesterday ordered his colleagues to cease the public bickering that is threatening to undermine his - and the centre-right's - chances of winning the presidency next spring.

After an extraordinary series of confessionals with his most senior ministers, the Gaullist Prime Minister attempted to re-create the shattered truce forbidding conservative campaigning for the presidency until the year's end.

'Does everyone agree to observe a certain restraint until next January? What is the aim? To maintain calm which is the condition for our joint success,' Mr Balladur was quoted as telling colleagues.

He had conducted difficult meetings with two senior members of his own RPR party, Charles Pasqua, the Interior Minister, and Alain Juppe, the Foreign Minister, followed by Francois Leotard, the Defence Minister, a leader of the centrist Union for French Democracy (UDF). Then he made an appeal for calm in separate meetings with the deputies of the two main political groups in the ruling coalition.

The government has been buffeted by hostile publicity and damaging infighting after the resignation of Gerard Longuet, the UDF Industry Minister, who is likely to face fraud charges, and by the remanding in custody of Alain Carignon, a former minister. After his meeting with the premier, Mr Juppe told reporters he was 'dumbfounded by the deterioration of the political climate' in the past few days.'

'It seems to me urgent for the coalition and the government to get a grip on themselves. We must calm this sort of political madness that has taken hold of the country.'

Mr Pasqua publicly took issue with Mr Juppe last week after he agreed to be one of the leaders of the presidential campaign committee of Jacques Chirac, the RPR president. Mr Chirac is Mr Balladur's rival for the centre-right presidential nomination.

Mr Pasqua said he believed Mr Juppe's position in Mr Chirac's campaign team was incompatible with his presence in the cabinet.

Mr Pasqua, presumed to be a Balldur supporter, said he hoped the Prime Minister would use the departure of Mr Longuet's as an opportunity for a government reshuffle. The implication was that Mr Balladur should replace Mr Juppe. In the event, Mr Balladur merely appointed a direct replacement, Andre Rossi of the UDF.

The turmoil of the past week coincided with an opinion poll giving Jacques Delors, the most likely Socialist candidate for the presidency, equal chances with Mr Balladur. Another poll, appearing in the weekly L'Express this week, however, gives the Prime Minister a four-point lead.

Friction in the government coalition amounted to 'rolling out a red carpet for Jacques Delors', said Patrick Devedjian, a Gaullist member of the National Assembly and supporter of Mr Balladur.

Mr Balladur also wrote yesterday to Mr Chirac and Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the UDF president, inviting them to see him. Since the summer, neither Mr Chirac nor Mr Giscard d'Estaing has attended the regular Tuesday lunches Mr Balladur holds for coalition party leaders.

The official reason for each man's absence each week has been an over-full timetable. Using the same excuse yesterday, Mr Balladur cancelled this week's lunch altogether.