Balladur starts to slide in polls

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EDOUARD BALLADUR'S popularity rating has dropped by 5 per cent over one month, according to an opinion poll published this weekend, bolstering a growing impression that the Gaullist Prime Minister's honeymoon is over.

Despite the fall, registered by the BVA polling institute for the weekly Paris Match, Mr Balladur still held a comfortable 54 per cent of positive opinions and topped the list of politicians in whom the French trusted. Last month, he had 59 per cent in the same poll. President Francois Mitterrand dropped two points to 40 per cent.

Mr Balladur's performance in the polls is of crucial importance in the coming months, since his showing over the past year has made him the best-placed candidate for presidential elections in May of next year, when Mr Mitterrand's term ends. The main effect of this has been to put Jacques Chirac, the president of the Gaullist RPR party and Mayor of Paris, who had been expecting an almost automatic Gaullist investiture, on the defensive. Mr Chirac was eight places behind Mr Balladur in the poll.

The Paris Match figure for Mr Balladur confirmed a recent trend, as other polls have also registered a sudden sharp drop. This has occurred since the government was forced to withdraw a controversial law allowing local authorities to raise subsidies to private schools and since violent riots by fishermen in Brittany two weeks ago.

This week, however, Mr Balladur was rocked from an unexpected quarter. Andre Rousselet, the outgoing chairman of the Canal Plus subscription television channel, accused the Prime Minister of pushing him out of the television station he founded 10 years ago, in a campaign to install friends in influential places. It is a common practice in France for the government to have its say in the appointment of the leading chief executives and Mr Rousselet himself benefited from Mr Mitterrand's friendship.

Yesterday Charles Pasqua, the Interior Minister, and Alain Carignon, the Communication Minister, both Gaullists, turned their sights on Mr Rousselet.

Mr Pasqua called Mr Rousselet 'a bit of a megalomaniac' and recalled his close ties with the Socialist President. The Socialists, in opposition since the landslide that brought the conservatives to power last March, had used Mr Rousselet's broadside to attack what they alleged was interference in the media.

Adding to Mr Balladur's problems is growing talk of a 'social explosion', largely prompted by the fishermen's violence. Last weekend Mr Mitterrand spoke of the likelihood of social problems and the Paris Match poll showed that 62 per cent of the French feared unrest in the near future.