The impetus was provided by Raymond Barre, prime minister from 1976 to 1981, who set out his goals for France saying he wanted to participate in the presidential debate, a formula which commentators saw as a way of positioning himself as an eventual candidate. In the last presidential elections in 1988, Mr Barre took 16.5 per cent of the vote in the first round and then stood down in favour of the Gaullist Jacques Chirac who went on to lose to Francois Mitterrand, the Socialist incumbent.
Although Mr Barre is something of an elder statesman, his presidential potential has been considered insignificant since 1988, but it was given a boost by Mr Mitterrand last week who said, in words no doubt aimed at undermining his opponents, that Mr Barre would be his preferred conservative candidate.
Yesterday, one former centrist minister called on Mr Barre to put himself up as the UDF candidate, prompting a current UDF minister to express his support for Valery Giscard d'Estaing, President from 1974 to 1981. Another rejected Mr Barre outright.
Such statements, following the support declared by Foreign Minister Alain Juppe earlier this month, for Mr Chirac to be the Gaullist RPR party's candidate, made a mockery of an order from Edouard Balladur, the Gaullist Prime Minister and another presidential hopeful, to ministers not to get involved in the campaign until the beginning of next year.
Although the election is not scheduled to start until 23 April, it took on a particular immediacy over the past week as reports on Mr Mitterrand's health led to speculation that the President, 78 next month, may have to step down early because of advanced cancer of the prostate.
This could upset the strategies of some possible candidates, particularly Mr Balladur and Jacques Delors, the best-placed potential Socialist, who were delaying their decisions until after the New Year.
For the Socialist Party, in disarray after revelations about Mr Mitterrand's past under the collaborationist Vichy regime during the Second World War, the fissures in the UDF brought some small comfort. Jean-Pierre Soisson, a centrist minister in Mr Barre's government and also in the last Socialist government - a position which earned him the odium of much of the right - called on Mr Barre yesterday 'to follow his logic to the end. For the moment he is a candidate for the debate. I think he should be a candidate for the presidency.'
This brought a reaction from Herve de Charette, the UDF Housing Minister and perhaps Mr Giscard d'Estaing's most fervent disciple. Mr de Charette said the former president was 'the best and the most experienced' figure in the UDF which needed a candidate 'with personal standing, a policy and the support of public opinion'.
Francois Leotard the UDF Defence Minister, an open supporter of a single Balladur candidature to unite the two conservative coalition partners, said he did not see 'why or how the UDF could ratify the candidature' of Mr Barre, who had 'always cultivated with care and consistency, his distance' from the party's mainstream.
An opinion poll published in Paris Match yesterday put Mr Balladur top of the field with 52 per cent of positive opinions. Mr Delors had 45 per cent and Mr Chirac 37 while Mr Barre took 34 to Mr Giscard d'Estaing's 32.Reuse content