French Election: Wildcat who is looking to run France's south coast: A former rock musician strikes the right note on the Cote d'Azur

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The Independent Online
CANNES - Before Bill Clinton became a household name, Michel Mouillot liked to describe himself as 'the Kennedy of the Cote d'Azur'.

The implication, of course, was that Mr Mouillot, mayor of Cannes and one- time drummer for the Chats Sauvages rock group, was of the younger generation. It is perhaps not the most tactful approach in a city where half the voters are over 60.

Now 49, Mr Mouillot, of the centre- right Union for French Democracy (UDF), is something of a wildcat politician. He is standing for the National Assembly in France's general election, which begins on Sunday, against the official UDF candidate and outgoing deputy, Louise Moreau, 72. With the other parties, even the ruling Socialists, in the background, it is the Mouillot- Moreau battle that captures the imagination of the Cannois.

Mrs Moreau - who has nicknamed her opponent 'Bill' - has the backing of both the national UDF and the Gaullist RPR party. Over the weekend, her supporters hastily pasted hand-lettered notices proclaiming her fidelity to the ideas of De Gaulle on her election posters.

But Mr Mouillot has the support of the two most important local UDF politicians, Francois Leotard, the mayor of nearby Frejus and a prime ministerial candidate, and Jean-Claude Gaudin, president of the Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azur region. Mr Leotard, who will be 51 next week, between the two rounds of an election that is expected to bring a conservative landslide and oust the Socialist government, believes it is time for the older politicians to make way for their juniors.

The consensus is that Mr Mouillot, mayor since 1990 of one of Europe's most glamorous cities, should win in Cannes. An affable and energetic glad- hander who used to be a public relations consultant, the candidate himself points to his election meetings, which have attracted up to 2,000 people. One for Mrs Moreau, with support from big guns in Paris, only drew, by his count, 500 last Thursday.

If Mr Mouillot does take the Cannes parliamentary seat, the combination of a place in the National Assembly and the Cannes city hall will put him in the running for another position, which carries no title and no salary: that of strongman of the Cote d'Azur. This has been vacant since Jacques Medecin, the right-wing mayor of Nice, absconded to Uruguay in 1990 on a first-class ticket paid for by the rate-payer to evade tax fraud charges. So far, no one else is in the running.

While Mrs Moreau might be hoping for senior citizens' support, one young Cannois expressed his doubts that this would work, particularly among women. 'However old a woman may be,' he said, 'she will always vote for a good-looking man.' Perhaps even more so now that Mr Mouillot has categorised the elderly 'le bel age'.

Mr Mouillot started his campaign only last week because he was in hospital last month with pneumonia. On Saturday he was visiting the Cannes - twinned with Beverly Hills - that the visitors to the annual film festival and the casino never see, where the exclusive boutiques with world-famous designer names give way to supermarkets, where the grandiose architecture of the city centre is replaced by five-storey blocks of municipal housing.

Mr Mouillot was in the northern suburb of Ranguin, largely populated by tenants of North African stock, to open a new sports centre. For all the contrast with the opulent La Croisette, Cannes' main road along the Mediterranean, Ranguin, surrounded by gardens from which the southern Alps are visible in the distance, is a far cry from the sordid post-war suburbs that mar the outskirts of many French cities.

Inspecting the new offices of the sports centre and a neighbouring aquarium, Mr Mouillot promised to send officials from the city's technical services with the particular aim of improving the aquarium. He reminded an apparently sympathetic audience that - very soon - rooms would be made available for the young for 'jazz and rock' and for film projections in the suburb's commercial centre.

Like many French politicians, Mr Mouillot has the odd juridical problem on his horizon. Briefly on the payroll of Pierre Botton, son-in-law of Michel Noir, the mayor of Lyons, he had to postpone an appointment with the examining magistrate in charge last month because of pneumonia. Mr Botton, detained in November, has been charged with fraud in a case involving politicians and media people.

Mr Noir now faces being put 'under examination', the wording that has replaced 'inculpation' or 'charge' in legal reforms introduced this month. There is so far no reliable indication of the gravity, if any, of Mr Mouillot's involvement with Mr Botton.

Leading article, page 20