Court clears way for French PM candidate

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A LYONS court dropped corruption charges yesterday against Francois Leotard, who is perhaps the most promising French politician of the younger generation. The judgment cleared the way for him to become a serious contender for the job of prime minister after parliamentary elections next month.

In another case, the High Court, the only body empowered to try politicians for offences committed in office, ruled that Laurent Fabius, the former Socialist Prime Minister, and two ex-ministers could not be charged for the distribution of HIV-contaminated blood products to haemophiliacs in 1985.

The court said that, as in normal jurisdiction, a three-year statute of limitations applied to the charges of fraud and non-assistance to persons in danger. Mr Fabius had said he wanted a trial to clear his name. The ruling, although in perfect conformity with the law, was certain to cause new controversy.

Mr Leotard, 50, benefited from the same statute of limitations. He was charged last June over a contract for a new yacht harbour in the Cote d'Azur town of Frejus, where he was mayor. This prompted the honorary president of the centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF) to resign all elected offices except that of town councillor.

He is sure to be reinstated as mayor when the council meets next Saturday. Then he can be the official host to President Francois Mitterrand who is to visit Frejus three days later.

That visit could be crucial. There have been hints that Mr Mitterrand favours Mr Leotard to head a new government of 'cohabitation' - a conservative cabinet under the Socialist presidency - after the second round of elections on 28 March.

Mr Leotard has made it plain that he is available. An indication that Mr Mitterrand was receptive came last month when Pierre Berge, a close friend of the President as well as director of the Paris Opera and chairman of Yves Saint-Laurent, told Le Figaro magazine that Mr Leotard was a good candidate.

Currently, Edouard Balladur, a former finance minister from the Gaullist RPR, is the strongest of half a dozen candidates but his appointment is not a foregone conclusion.

The RPR-UDF opposition is tipped to win the elections by a handsome margin.