Charismatic right-winger eyes top prize: Francois Leotard has regained his confidence, and he could be the next prime minister of France, Julian Nundy writes from Frejus

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The Independent Online
THERE is a photograph from October 1983 published the world over. It shows a French paratrooper holding an outstretched hand sticking out of rubble just after a truck bomb destroyed the Drakkar barracks of the French battalion in the multinational peace-keeping force in Beirut.

It killed 58 French soldiers. Seconds earlier, a similar bomb took the lives of nearly five times as many US Marines who were based at Beirut airport.

On Monday night, the paratrooper, currently out of work, questioned Francois Leotard, a man who might well be president of France in or around the year 2000, about how to stop the killing in former Yugoslavia, where France has nearly 5,000 soldiers. Mr Leotard, possibly unaware of the precise identity of his interlocutor, said he feared that the twentieth century would be remembered for beginning in Sarajevo (with the 1914 assassination of the Arch-Duke Franz Ferdinand) and ending in Sarajevo.

It was an evening in a smart villa in the hills above the Mediterranean, on the outskirts of Frejus, of which Mr Leotard is mayor. It was the end of a day of inaugurations and electoral meetings for a man whose charm and charisma leave the cynics speechless and infuriate many of those who should be his political allies.

Mr Leotard will be 51 on Friday of next week, two days before the second round of voting in National Assembly elections expected to bring his party, the Union for French Democracy (UDF), and its Gaullist RPR ally, into government by a landslide.

Three options face Mr Leotard. One is that, in the second cohabitation - conservative government under the Socialist President, Francois Mitterrand - he will not be offered, or will not accept, any ministerial post. The second is that he will take a ministry and his preference is said to be foreign affairs. The third is that he will be prime minister.

If so, he says, it will be because Mr Mitterrand, whose presidential term ends in 1995, has opted for a non-confrontational cohabitation. The same will be true if Mr Mitterrand, who alone has the say on who runs the government, chooses Edouard Balladur of the RPR. For months now, Mr Balladur has been the front-runner to head the new government and he almost certainly will if, as is likely, the RPR emerges as the biggest party in the new parliament.

If Mr Mitterrand wants confrontation, according to Mr Leotard, he might offer the post to Jacques Chirac, the RPR president, who was prime minister in the first 1986-88 cohabitation. Mr Chirac, with eyes on the 1995 presidential election, has already said he does not want to serve. If the job is offered, however, it might be difficult to refuse.

Whatever the outcome of the voting over the next two weeks, there will be countless eyes on Mr Leotard. The paratrooper and other guests on Monday night, intrigued at the presence of outsiders, asked what impression they had of 'Francois'. Did the foreigners find him convincing too?

Affirmative. With an almost boyish charm, he makes the most tired and cynical observers end up wanting him, a one-time Benedictine novice who abandoned his first calling for other ministries, to succeed. His brother, Philippe, is a well-known actor and opted for the cinema.

Until last June Mr Leotard - who has burnt his bridges with Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former President and founder of the UDF, a man, he says, 'who never knew adversity' - looked unstoppable. Dismissed as a lightweight by many in the 1980s, he gradually developed a classy and deeper look. 'Where are my granny glasses?' he has been heard to ask as he headed off for meetings where he wanted a touch of gravitas. Mr Mitterrand has let it be known that he considers Mr Leotard a viable prime ministerial contender - a good leg-up to the presidency.

The last days of June almost brought a halt to Mr Leotard's career. He was charged with corruption in a case where, put simply, the implication was that he had obtained a house at well below the market price from a man who later got a lucrative contract to build Frejus' yachting harbour. Mr Leotard resigned his elective offices immediately. In January the charges were grudgingly dropped because, the judges said, a three- year statute of limitations applied. Mr Leotard's lawyers lodged an unusual appeal against the formulation, arguing that it was used only to justify bringing charges in the first place.

In television appearances at the time the charges were dropped, the toll on Mr Leotard showed. He was markedly less self-confident than before. On the campaign trail however, the confidence is back.

Before charges were lodged, Mr Leotard was on an evening television news programme where Bernard Tapie, the entrepreneur and Minister for Towns in the Socialist government, said Mr Leotard had 'the stuff of a president'. Pinned down by a flustered anchor-person, Mr Tapie said he was sure that, one day, Mr Leotard would be president. With sang froid worthy of Alec Guinness, that should be the envy of his film-star brother, Mr Leotard did not flinch.

After Mr Leotard was charged Brice Lalonde, the ecologist and former environment minister in the Socialist government, said it was time to get rid of the charges and bring back a man who he effectively said was the hope of France into mainstream politics.

On the nastier issues, Mr Leotard is rigorous. As others of his political hue adopt xenophobic rhetoric to catch the potential supporters of the far-right National Front, he is absent. When Mr Giscard d'Estaing published a piece in 1991 saying French nationality should be based on the 'right of blood' rather than on the place of birth, Mr Leotard responded with a counter-argument in Le Monde with the headline 'Cowardice', basically accusing the ex-president of unpardonable vote-catching.

An iniquitous word in the journalistic lexicon is 'moderate'. All it really means is: the one the writer likes. The problem with Francois Leotard is, try as one may, he is incorrigibly moderate.

(First Edition)