False start for French presidential rivals

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THE French Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, and Jacques Chirac, head of the Gaullist RPR party, are manoeuvring like participants in a slow bicycle race. Both desperately want to be the next President of the Republic, but dare not declare their candidacies too soon.

They were supposed to participate in a televised duel last night which would have effectively launched their rival campaigns for the French Presidency. But Mr Balladur, also from the RPR and, according to the the polls the most popular man in France, pulled out of the programme. He was supposed to present his 'action plan' for the French economy for the next six months on the France 2 channel at 8pm last night, but called it off when it became known that Mr Chirac was booked to appear on the commercial channel TF1 at the same time.

The Presidential elections do not take place for another 11 months and the candidates on the left and the right are not expected to declare officially until next January, but jockeying for position has already begun, especially on the right, which has the best chance of providing the winning candidate. The rivalry is most intense between the technocratic Mr Balladur, who has made it a fetish not to talk about the presidency, and Mr Chirac, the mayor of Paris, who wears his ambitions on his sleeve.

Mr Chirac helped steer the centre-right RPR-UDF coalition into government last year only to see his colleague Mr Balladur gain respect as Prime Minister. His grave manner and unflappable style has wide appeal among voters worried about economic stagnation and high unemployment. Since he took over, the economy has moved into recovery with interest rates falling and the growth in unemployment showing signs of slowing.

Mr Chirac will be a formidable opponent, however, and he will have the RPR machine behind him, while Mr Balladur looks for support from the UDF. Mr Chirac will also have allies on the far right and he has shown he can work with Phillippe de Villiers who successfully ran the 'Other Europe' anti-Maastricht campaign in the European elections.

Mr Chirac, meanwhile, is doing everything he can to promote his own cause. He has travelled to Japan, the Lebanon and New York recently on slim pretexts to be received with pomp and ceremony. Douglas Hurd, the British Foreign Secretary, visits him regularly, and sees him as the natural candidate of the French right and the most likely next president of the republic.