Chirac prepares power bid

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JACQUES CHIRAC, the leader of the Gaullist RPR party, has set up 31 study groups to prepare his bid for the presidency in 18 months' time. The announcement about the groups, each concentrating on a specific policy area and headed by an RPR parliamentarian, came as Mr Chirac trailed Edouard Balladur, his Gaullist ally and Prime Minister, in opinion polls.

Mr Balladur's continuing good standing seven months after the right won parliamentary elections has prompted a spate of speculation that in the end he may be the Gaullists' candidate in the May 1995 election rather than Mr Chirac, the RPR president and mayor of Paris.

A poll in the weekly Paris Match this week said that 60 per cent of the sample believed there was no alternative to Mr Balladur's policies. Another recent poll found that 25 per cent thought Mr Balladur was the best prime minister of the past 20 years, while only 8 per cent had the same opinion of Mr Chirac, who has twice run the government.

Mr Balladur, a low-key and courtly politician, is credited with telling the truth about the poor state of the economy and not making promises he cannot keep. Political sources, particularly those opposed to Mr Chirac, say his popularity has strained relations between the two Gaullists, although this is denied by their associates.

Some members of Mr Balladur's entourage, insisting that he would back Mr Chirac as the RPR candidate, said the Prime Minister believed his standing would fall as the recession continued to bite.

Although Mr Balladur himself is widely popular, his government's performance in recent weeks has been hesitant. Last month, it backed down on a restructuring programme for Air France, to end a crippling strike that caused havoc at Paris airports.

This week, Pierre Mehaignerie, the centrist Justice Minister, rowed back on a pledge to make life sentences really mean life for prisoners convicted of violent or sexual crimes against children. Earlier, the Higher Education Ministry abandoned a plan to means test student rent allowances as student unions planned a march through Paris.

These reversals have created the impression of a government anxious to avoid social conflict at all cost. The Paris Match poll also found that 72 per cent of the French feared growing unemployment would soon cause a social explosion.