Balladur holds his ground in local elections

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THE PARTIES in France's ruling conservative coalition held their ground in local elections this week while, paradoxically, the opposition Socialists made important strides.

The results in the cantonal elections, the equivalent of county council elections, gave the Gaullist RPR party and the centre-right Union for French Democracy 44.55 per cent of the vote in the first round of the poll on Sunday, the same proportion they took in the first round of parliamentary elections a year ago.

The casualties in the vote, which also gave the Communist Party an unexpected fillip, were the ecologists, who sank to 3.93 per cent, roughly their score of a year ago, and the far right National Front with 9.84, down nearly three percentage points.

The Socialists took 23.28 per cent, six points up on a year ago. Michel Rocard, the Socialist leader, said the result was the beginning of a recovery for a party that looked almost moribund a year ago. The Communists beat the National Front for the first time since the mid-1980s by taking 11.36 per cent. This was a boost for the Communists' new leader, Robert Hue.

With the Socialists' allies, the Left Radicals, taking 5.75 per cent, the left had a combined total of 40.4 per cent.

The elections were held in half of the cantons in all of France's 95 departments except Paris, which has a special status. The elections for the other half will be held in three years' time.

The results were awaited for signs of popular disillusionment with the government of Edouard Balladur a year after he became Prime Minister. His once-buoyant image has begun to take a battering recently with violent student demonstrations against a proposal to reduce the minimum legal wage for the young to combat youth unemployment.

Trade unions were in discussion with Michel Giraud, the Gaullist Labour Minister, yesterday to persuade the government to abandon the proposal. Mr Giraud, in what looked like an afterthought, said over the weekend that the idea of allowing employers to pay under-26-year-olds 20 per cent below the minimum wage was to let them take one-fifth of the week off for training.

Another factor upsetting politicians' image has been the fallout from the assassination of Yann Piat, a UDF National Assembly deputy from Var department, on 25 February. Investigations so far point to links between local politicians and the criminal underworld.

Piat had left a letter in which she named Maurice Arreckx, the leader of the Var council and a UDF senator, as one of her personal foes.

Mr Arreckx was beaten into second place by the National Front in the first round in his Toulon canton, meaning that he will have to fight hard to retain his council seat in the second round next Sunday.

In Marseilles, Bernard Tapie, the controversial businessman-cum-politician, took 44 per cent of the vote in the city's fifth canton, making him virtually certain of victory. He had made the vote into a popularity test before staking a claim to the powerful job of mayor of Marseilles in the municipal elections next year.