Euro-rebel lays claim for high office: Outspoken comments by France's leading anti-Maastricht politician signal his presidential ambitions

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The Independent Online
PHILIPPE SEGUIN, the Gaullist president of the French National Assembly, has lashed out at government unemployment policy and called for the Gatt world trade mechanism to be abolished.

The outspoken views of Mr Seguin, who led the campaign in France against ratification of the Maastricht treaty a year ago, clearly set him aside as the spokesman of an alternative to the classic conservatism of Edouard Balladur, the Gaullist Prime Minister.

'It isn't true that the struggle against unemployment is, as we are told, developed countries' priority,' Mr Seguin said, 'employment takes second place, behind the defence of the currency, cutting public deficits or promotion of free trade.' This amounted to what he called 'a social Munich'.

The attack on the defence of currencies was classic anti-Maastricht talk. Politicians who opposed the treaty in France criticise the government insistence on tying the franc to the German mark within the exchange rate mechanism, arguing that it should be floated to make French goods more competitive. So, too, was the snipe at free trade.

Mr Seguin, and a good number of other French politicians of all stripes, believe in priority for European Community goods and services within EC frontiers.

The remarks by the National Assembly's president, during a speech on Wednesday closing a colloquium on employment, surprised many in French politics because the president, or speaker, of the lower house of parliament traditionally steers a neutral course. This was seen as one of the attractions for the Gaullist establishment of electing him to the post after the parliamentary elections in March.

Mr Seguin plainly demonstrated, however, that he intended to build on the reputation he forged during the Maastricht campaign and had no taste for the sidelines. Alain Duhamel, one of France's top political commentators, said yesterday he believed Mr Seguin, 50, had staked his claim to being a presidential candidate at the beginning of the next century.

Mr Seguin, as the leading Gaullist opposing Maastricht - while the leadership of the Gaullist RPR party supported the treaty - rose to the forefront of French politics during the Maastricht referendum campaign. He became the most prominent leader of the various strands opposing the treaty and was chosen by President Francois Mitterrand as his opponent for a televised debate on the issue before the referendum.

The 'yes' vote carried the day by less than one percentage point, despite predictions a few weeks before the September referendum that it would sail through. The close result was seen largely as Mr Seguin's work and he has since carved a place among the more popular politicians.

On the Gatt talks, where France is threatening to provoke an internal EC crisis by its rejection of last November's agriculture agreement, Mr Seguin said the 'structural crisis' of the world economy justified Gatt's 'pure and simple dissolution'.

His words took the thunder from a statement to parliament by Mr Balladur, after talks with President Bill Clinton in Washington, in which the Prime Minister said there would be 'no agreement on anything if there is no agreement on agriculture', indicating there had been no movement in either the French or US positions.

Mr Seguin said Gatt was 'just an ersatz, negotiated as a temporary measure which should have disappeared with the international organisation of trade'. This organisation had never seen the day because of US opposition, he said.

Some analysts speculated that Mr Seguin's tough words could be part of a wider tactic to give Jacques Chirac, the RPR leader and the most likely Gaullist presidential candidate at the next elections in 1995, a radical alternative if the Balladur government, faced with the momentous problems posed by recession, developed a credibility problem.

(Photograph omitted)

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