France Prepares to Vote: Roll-call for PM offers dark horses: With the ruling Socialists in apparently terminal decline, Julian Nundy in Paris previews the coming polls

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The Independent Online
WHEN the composition of the new National Assembly becomes known next month Francois Mitterrand will begin the process leading to the appointment of a prime minister. With 'cohabitation' only in its second incarnation, there are no rules for filling this senior post. It is up to the president, who under the constitution chooses the head of government, to set them as he goes along.

In 1986, on the Monday evening 24 hours after the vote, Mr Mitterrand said in a television address that he would invite the head of the biggest party in the new parliament, then the Gaullist RPR, to head a government. The next day, Jacques Chirac, the RPR president, accepted the job.

It is likely but by no means certain that the RPR will again be the biggest party in the Assembly. One recent poll gave the RPR 224 seats, only slightly ahead of 218 for the centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF).

Mr Chirac, 60, is still leader of the RPR but, with sights on the presidency in two years' time, he has said he does not want to serve again under Mr Mitterrand. Charles Pasqua, a senior Gaullist, is pushing Mr Chirac's candidature and says that Mr Mitterrand must offer him the job first.

The most likely Gaullist candidate is Edouard Balladur, the Finance Minister under the original 'cohabitation'. He has been presented for several months now as the RPR's choice and is promoted by Mr Chirac's entourage. Mr Balladur, 63, started his political career on the staff of Georges Pompidou when Pompidou was Charles de Gaulle's prime minister.

With an aristocratic bearing and turn of phrase, Mr Balladur would be unlikely to ruffle Mr Mitterrand's feathers by his manner. But his style does not appeal to all Gaullists, such as Mr Pasqua or Philippe Seguin, the main campaigner against the Maastricht treaty, who think Gaullists should have more grassroots appeal.

In the UDF, the two most prominent possibles are Valery Giscard d'Estaing, 67, and Francois Leotard, 50. Although both men are from the same component of the UDF, the Republican Party, there is no love lost between them.

Mr Leotard, who has said he is available for the job, is considered a presidential contender for the elections after next, in 2002, if the current seven- year presidential mandate is retained. Mr Leotard's chances for the premiership were enhanced recently by public remarks by a friend of Mr Mitterrand who said he was a good candidate.

Mr Giscard d'Estaing, whose name has been put forward by his entourage, is believed to harbour ambitions to reconquer the presidency in 1995. Although Mr Mitterrand and Mr Giscard d'Estaing are known to have good, even cordial relations, it is difficult to imagine them working together in harmony.

The prime minister's post would, however, follow a certain logic in Mr Giscard d'Estaing's career. Since he lost the 1981 presidential elections, he has worked his way back, starting with elections to his departmental council and the National Assembly.

Two other candidates, whose names have been mentioned, come from the centrist component of the UDF. They are Raymond Barre, 68, Mr Giscard d'Estaing's prime minister from 1976 to 1981, and Rene Monory, 69, the president of the Senate.

The credentials of Mr Barre, who was a presidential candidate in 1988, are well known but, a lone wolf who refuses to join opposition censure motions against the government, he has little real support in parliament and this would be a handicap. Pierre Beregovoy, the incumbent, is said to favour Mr Barre as his successor.

Mr Monory, a former industry and economy minister in the 1970s and education minister during the first 'cohabitation', is a well-liked moderate. He would be an uncontroversial candidate who could concentrate on internal matters and refrain from confrontation with Mr Mitterrand. One question, however, is: does Mr Mitterrand want to avoid confrontation?

Another, outside candidate is Mr Seguin, 49. During the campaign for the Maastricht referendum last September, he was Mr Mitterrand's chosen adversary for a televised debate. Mr Seguin said this month that he would accept the post if it were offered. The President told Le Monde last week that he would not take a prime minister who opposed European construction. This was taken by many, including Mr Seguin himself, to mean Mr Seguin.

While these names are those most commonly mentioned, the list cannot be exhaustive. When the day comes, the real choice may be a complete surprise.

(Photograph omitted)