French centre-right braced for civil war

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The Independent Online
PARIS marked the 50th anniversary of its liberation from Nazi occupation yesterday with song, dance and discreet in-fighting between right- wing presidential hopefuls.

Over the last two days, Jacques Chirac, the president of the Gaullist RPR party and mayor of Paris, has shamelessly annexed the city's celebrations to his campaign to become President of France next May.

On Wednesday, Mr Chirac, the only certain candidate for the presidency, implicitly criticised the economic record of Edouard Balladur, the Prime Minister, fellow Gaullist, former friend and the opinion poll favourite to replace President Francois Mitterrand.

Yesterday, Mr Chirac returned to his theme. General De Gaulle, he said, had sought 'a sort of social contract' with the French people on wages and unemployment. 'Over the years' this had been neglected by the general's political heirs. 'It should be brought back.'

Although there are so far no official candidates, Mr Chirac makes no secret of his intention to stand. He is expected to declare as early as next month. The Gaullist leader, roundly defeated by Mr Mitterrand in 1981, is acutely aware that the greatest threat to his ambitions comes, this time, not from the distressed French left but from his Gaullist colleague.

Mr Balladur was appointed Prime Minister after parliamentary elections last year because it suited Mr Chirac to remain aloof from the bear-pit of national politics. (He was still smarting from the experience of power-sharing with the wily socialist President in the 1980s). In the event, the grey and unfancied Mr Balladur rapidly pulled far ahead of his party chief in opinion polls.

As the Prime Minister's standing has risen, his personal relations with Mr Chirac have deteriorated, ending a 30-year political friendship. Although he has never said he will be a candidate, the signs are that Mr Balladur considers it a serious possibility.

The only candidate on the left with any potential is Jacques Delors, the outgoing European Commission President. Although many Socialists are pushing him to stand, he is said to be reluctant, as he nears 70, to thrust himself into an election.

Some political analysts say that this is a ploy enabling Mr Delors to delay any announcement until the New Year when he can better assess his chances. Mr Balladur, who has asked his ministers not to get involved in the presidential campaign until the end of the year, is thought to have a similar strategy.

The unappealing prospect for the centre-right is that they will have several candidates next spring - Mr Balladur, Mr Chirac and, from the centrist Union for French Democracy, Valery Giscard d'Estaing (the former president), and Raymond Barre (his prime minister in the late 1970s).

But the real battle, fought in back rooms and nuanced speeches, will be between Mr Chirac and Mr Balladur.

At a memorial meeting yesterday for General Leclerc - who led the Free French forces into Paris - Mr Balladur delivered a scarcely veiled rebuke to the mayor of Paris, who was sitting nearby. Quoting Leclerc, he said: 'Our country cannot afford the luxury of fractious divisions: union is more than ever essential to restore France's national grandeur.'

Mr Chirac's accent on social issues was not a surprise. The Balladur government is generally popular with the public. Stressing its failures - principally France's stubbornly high unemployment rate - is one of the few ways the mayor of Paris can embarrass his old friend.

Whoever does become the stronger candidate - and other Gaullists are anxious that only one should go forward into the actual election - the current wisdom is that neither can now succeed without the help of Charles Pasqua, the blunt and gung- ho Interior Minister.

This month, with the arrest of the terrorist, Carlos the Jackal, and a widespread police operation involving the checking of immigrants' papers to stem Islamic fundamentalist militancy, Mr Pasqua has rarely been out of the headlines, reinforcing his image as both a party and government strongman.

Although a clear Chirac supporter a year ago, Mr Pasqua has since adopted a cautious neutrality. The speculation is that he will choose his camp late in the day in the hope of being appointed prime minister. But there is an alternative theory, gradually gaining credibility: Mr Pasqua may make a bid for the Elysee Palace himself.

(Photograph omitted)