Chirac makes meal of Balladur rivalry

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WITH Edouard Balladur taking a sudden dip in opinion polls, Jacques Chirac, the head of the Gaullist RPR party and an associate of 30 years, has launched an angry attack on the Prime Minister and his policies.

According to reports of the weekly Tuesday lunch between leaders of the parties in the ruling conservative coalition, the RPR and the centre- right Union for French Democracy (UDF), Mr Chirac's attack left Mr Balladur pale, making little effort to reply and 'completely cornered'.

Mr Balladur, who has known unprecedented approval ratings since he became Prime Minister after parliamentary elections last March, remains France's most popular politician.

His popularity has had the effect of eclipsing Mr Chirac, the mayor of Paris, who had expected to be the almost automatic RPR candidate for the presidential elections in May 1995. More and more, Mr Balladur is tipped as the RPR's likely candidate.

Leaks from the lunch reported Mr Chirac fulminating against the government, but it was difficult to see whether this was a calculated attack to exploit Mr Balladur's slide or an explosion of frustration.

A particular target was Francois Leotard, the UDF Defence Minister, who said in December that he would back Mr Balladur as a joint candidate for both the ruling parties. By so doing, Mr Leotard upset both Mr Chirac and Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former president and a leader of the UDF, who is believed to be contemplating a comeback.

Mr Chirac criticised the government's agreement to extend a moratorium on nuclear testing introduced two years ago by the former Socialist government. He questioned whether Mr Leotard would have 'the courage' to test himself before public opinion after giving in to Francois Mitterrand, the Socialist President.

Defence and foreign affairs are areas in which the president retains a role even when his own party is not in government; Mr Balladur has been at pains not to seek confrontation in these areas.

Some accounts of the lunch also said Mr Chirac turned on Charles Pasqua, the Gaullist Interior Minister, who has always appeared to be a Chirac ally, suspecting him of delaying moves to re-schedule next year's municipal elections, due in March. Mr Chirac's supporters want the municipal elections delayed. Accounts of the lunch suggested that Mr Balladur had agreed to this.