French right may snatch defeat from jaws of victory

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EIGHT months before the presidential election to find a successor to Francois Mitterrand, the French right has suddenly, perhaps prematurely, plunged into the campaign.

A concerted effort by the Gaullist old guard to thwart the ambitions of Edouard Balladur, the Prime Minister, has opened divisions which, some fear, could even lose the right the election.

Logically, the presidency should be there for the taking for the Gaullist RPR party and its centre-right allies in the Union for French Democracy (UDF). After a landslide in last year's parliamentary election, Mr Balladur's government has remained popular and the Socialist Party has been riven by disputes.

However, the differences among the conservatives could prompt Jacques Delors, the outgoing European Commission president and the only left-wing contender with a chance, to try his luck.

Mr Balladur, who has never said he would be a candidate when the first round of voting takes place next 23 April, has nevertheless been making all the right moves. As part of his apparent strategy, based on the calculation that he should not make a bid until late, he asked his ministers not to get involved in the campaign until after the New Year.

This rule was broken on Friday by Alain Juppe, the Foreign Minister and RPR Secretary-General, when he told the 'summer university' of his party in Bordeaux that he backed Jacques Chirac, the RPR president and mayor of Paris, for the presidency. Given Mr Juppe's delicate position as both a member of the cabinet and a party chief, he had been expected to hedge his bets for some months.

The Foreign Minister was quickly joined by Philippe Seguin, the popular parliamentary speaker, known for his nearly successful campaign to stop France ratifying the Maastricht treaty.

Mr Juppe's decision to go public with his support for Mr Chirac, who has been trailing Mr Balladur badly in opinion polls, was likely at least to cause tensions within the cabinet. Even some RPR deputies were angered by the move. Patrick Balkany, a supporter of a Balladur candidature, said it amounted to taking 'a small number of carefully chosen militants hostage and forcing them into a premature choice'.

The right fielded two candidates in both the previous presidential elections, easing Mr Mitterrand's victory. In 1981, President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the UDF incumbent, lost after Mr Chirac also stood. In 1988, the candidature of Raymond Barre, a former UDF prime minister, contributed to Mr Chirac's defeat.

The advantage of a Balladur candidature (he is strongly supported by senior UDF politicians) is that the Prime Minister's appeal reaches to the centre left. Mr Chirac has little cross-party support. To avoid a repetition of the 1981 and 1988 defeats Charles Pasqua, the ebullient Gaullist Interior Minister, who has so far remained uncharacteristically aloof from the turbulence, has repeatedly proposed 'primaries' along US lines to find a candidate.

Members of the RPR and UDF would choose but many politicians fear the system would not work in France where most citizens like to keep their politics private. Primaries would require an act of parliament and time is running short.

Mr Balladur, according to all predictions for next year's vote, would be virtually assured of victory against any candidate the left could muster. Within the RPR, he is opposed by members who consider him too patrician.

In the event of both Mr Balladur and Mr Chirac standing, or their rivalry opening up the field to more conservative candidates, Mr Delors' task would be easier. In that case, the Gaullists' summer university could come to be seen as the occasion that the French right snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.