Balladur under fire on troop cutbacks: French right split on plan to close bases

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The Independent Online
PROPOSED troop reductions and the war in Bosnia have split France's new centre-right coalition, offering a foretaste of tensions in store.

The most damaging rift has come over a plan made public last week by Francois Leotard, the Defence Minister, and one of the leaders of the Union for French Democracy (UDF), to reduce the armed forces by 10,000 troops. Under the plan, bases throughout the country will close and regiments will be disbanded.

Immediately, National Assembly deputies of the Gaullist RPR party, to which Edouard Balladur, the Prime Minister, belongs, protested and some deputies, from areas which will be particularly affected by the cuts, have said they would resign their seats if the plan were adopted.

Mr Balladur has backed the project but, if resistance continues to be strong, it could provide a test of his resolve. Mr Balladur said he approved 'the principle' of the programme but was asking ministers to seek ways of alleviating the social effects of bases' closure. One regiment which will go is France's only Alpine regiment in Briancon, which introduced skiing into France a century ago.

Jacques Chirac, the RPR president, criticised the plan and Pierre Lellouche, Mr Chirac's adviser on international affairs, said it was 'premature'. Any announcement of restructuring should have awaited a planned government report on defence priorities after the collapse of Communism, he said.

Ironically, rare support for Mr Leotard's plan came from Jean-Michel Boucheron, the former Socialist president of the assembly's foreign affairs commission. The plan was a logical extension of measures already announced by Pierre Joxe, the former Socialist Defence Minister, and RPR opposition came from 'freshly elected deputies who are fighting a government policy which harms their local interests', he said.

In the European Parliament, meanwhile, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former president and a founder of the UDF, voted for a resolution which criticised the Washington agreement on Bosnia adopted on 22 May for being too favourable to the Serbs. The French negotiator of the accord was Alain Juppe, the Gaullist Foreign Minister. Here again, support for Mr Juppe's position came from an unexpected quarter. Francois Mitterrand, the Socialist President, expressed his approval.

Mr Giscard d'Estaing, who is still believed to harbour presidential ambitions despite a low standing in the polls, has made it plain that he intends to keep his independence from the government. If the going gets rough for Mr Balladur, the former president can be expected to become a more vociferous critic, adding to the already delicate situation engendered by the cohabitation between a conservative government and a Socialist head of state.

The news of the troop cuts, involving air and naval bases as well as ground forces, came just as new figures showed that unemployment in France rose by 45,600 last month to 3.1 million.