Delors closes the gap in contest for the Elysee: Outgoing EU President erodes Balladur's seemingly unassailable lead and delivers swipe at Britain's attitudes to Europe

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JACQUES DELORS, the most likely Socialist candidate for the French presidency next spring, is running neck-and-neck with Edouard Balladur, the Gaullist Prime Minister, according to a poll.

In an interview with Liberation yesterday the President of the European Commission said he would not decide whether to stand until after his Brussels term ends on

6 January. On EU matters, he swiped at British attitudes towards Europe - both official and unofficial - saying he would rather run the risk of a German-dominated 'rump' moving ahead of the rest than 'drown the European project in a soulless, vague free-trade zone'.

An opinion poll conducted by the Sofres institute for the TF1 television channel and RTL radio suggested that Mr Delors, 69, would win the presidential election in May by 56 per cent to 44 per cent in a run-off with Jacques Chirac, the president of the Gaullist RPR party. If he were to face Mr Balladur, both men would take 50 per cent. This was the first time an opinion poll has not forecast an outright victory for the Prime Minister.

The findings confirm the worst fears of many on the French right that a once seemingly unassailable political position would be eroded by the feuding between Mr Balladur and Mr Chirac (on who should run for the presidency) and allegations of corruption in the centre-right government.

Mr Delors is publishing a book early next month on his vision of France. Political sources have said his ideas resemble the 'New Society' promoted by Jacques Chaban- Delmas, the Gaullist prime minister from 1969 to 1972 under President Georges Pompidou. This has some logic, since Mr Delors, before he joined the Socialist Party, was a senior member of the Chaban-Delmas staff.

Next month the Socialist Party holds a full congress in Lievin, near Calais. Weakened in parliament since its defeat in elections last year, the party's only hope for a quick comeback is through the presidency, and Mr Delors is the only strong left- wing candidate.

Although the party would clearly have liked a stronger commitment before its congress, Mr Delors is apparently waiting until he is sure his chances of victory are good before he takes a decision on becoming a candidate.

(Photograph omitted)