Balladur rewards his allies: New French PM opts for centrist cabinet and imposes a big cut in official spending

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The Independent Online
FRANCE'S new centre-right government set to work yesterday with a call from Edouard Balladur, the Gaullist Prime Minister, to cut official spending.

Mr Balladur, meeting his ministers in an informal session before the first full cabinet meeting under the Socialist President Francois Mitterrand tomorrow told his team of 29 ministers they were not allowed to buy new official cars and that the budget for ministerial aircraft would be slashed by 30 per cent. He asked them to cut back their office expenses by 10 per cent.

Apart from the Clinton-style rigour, the composition of Mr Balladur's first government, put together after the election victory of the Gaullist RPR and the centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF), surprised commentators by its centrist look. Only 14 of the team, including Mr Balladur, are Gaullists; the other 16 are from the UDF.

They include noted centrists: Simone Veil, Minister of State for Social Affairs, Health and Towns, one of France's most popular politicians and a fierce opponent of the far-right, anti-immigration National Front; Pierre Mehaignerie, the Minister of State for Justice; Edmond Alphandery the Economy Minister; and Daniel Hoeffel, local government minister, who was president of the centrist group in the Senate.

'Minister of State' is an honorary title given to the most senior members of French governments. Mr Balladur named two others in his cabinet list on Tuesday evening: Charles Pasqua, the Gaullist, as Interior Minister, and Francois Leotard of the UDF, as the Defence Minister. That Mr Balladur had chosen to honour three UDF ministers this way was seen as a generous gesture to the centre-right group to keep internal divisions to a minimum. The Foreign Ministry went to Alain Juppe, the RPR secretary-general.

Mr Pasqua's inclusion in the cabinet, with the same portfolio that he held under the last left-right cohabitation, from 1986 to 1988, draws in one of the right's main campaigners against the Maastricht treaty before last September's referendum. Another is Philippe Seguin, who stands a good chance of being elected president, or speaker, of the National Assembly on Friday.

Although both Mr Pasqua and Mr Seguin are seen outside as potential sources of division, this is a view that probably does them an injustice. Their main strategy over the next two years seems to be to support and guide Jacques Chirac, who is almost certain to be the Gaullist candidate for the presidency when Mr Mitterrand, 76, stands down in 1995. In this role, therefore, they will be more interested in promoting the government's image even where policy conflicts with their ideals.

Stressing the important role the RPR president will play in the coming months, Mr Balladur - once his government list had been announced - drove straight to dinner with Mr Chirac, who is mayor of Paris, at the Hotel de Ville.

All the different political tendencies of the governing coalition have their place in the cabinet, whose average age is 52. Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former president and a bitter rival of Mr Chirac, has his representative in Herve de Charette, a close friend who was named Housing Minister.

The formation of the Balladur cabinet coincided with the release of the latest unemployment figures. The number of jobless passed 3 million to reach a record 10.6 per cent, something that Pierre Beregovoy, the Socialist prime minister who left office on Tuesday, promised would never happen in his time. The jobless figures had been expected last week but were apparently withheld for fear of influencing voters in the crucial days before the second and final round of elections on Sunday.