French right split over Chirac's new party

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The Independent Online

In the space of one week French politics has shifted from elemental questions of good and evil to its more traditional preoccupation with personal advancement and inter-party bickering.

A few days after winning a sweeping victory against the far right, President Jacques Chirac has split his own political "family" (the centre right) by trying to dragoon all factions into a single party under his own name.

The nominal intention was to fight the parliamentary elections in three weeks as a single, united front, against Jean-Marie Le Pen's National Front and the parties of the left. This would have aided the chances of President Chirac winning a centre-right majority in parliament and avoiding another five years of power-sharing with a a left-wing prime minister.

But the high-handed tactics employed by Mr Chirac and his lieutenants have had the opposite effect. The French centre right is more divided against itself than ever and is likely to put up two rival candidates in as many as 200 of the 577 constituencies in the first round of the National Assembly elections on 9 June.

In the midst of the political crisis caused by Mr Le Pen's qualification for the second round of the presidential election nine days ago, Mr Chirac tried to impose something he had long wanted, a single centre-right party, loyal only to him. The new party has been given a rather Third World title, "Union for a Presidential Majority".

Even Michèle Alliot-Marie, the president of Mr Chirac's party, the neo-Gaullist RPR, objected to the de facto merger of her own formation into this new Chiraquian alliance, which would muddle all the normal allegiances and sensibilities on the centre right. She was pushed out of the way by being given the post of Defence Minister in the new centre-right government formed last week, a senior job she did not want but could not easily refuse.

The leader of the smallest party of the centre right, Alain Madelin, of the pro-market Démocratie Libérale, also screamed political rape but could do little. Almost all the sitting deputies in his party, seeing which way the wind was blowing, signed up to the new presidential party.

Opposition to Mr Chirac's presidential coup d'état has therefore been left to François Bayrou, leader of the centrist, pro-European UDF, created originally by the former President Valéry Giscard d'Estaing.

Mr Bayrou said he was ready to agree an electoral pact with other centre-right parties, as in previous years, but that France was not ready for "single-party" politics.

He insisted that all his members standing in next month's elections should be labelled UDF, rather than run under the name of the new presidential party. Otherwise, his party would not qualify for public campaign subsidies and would not be able to form an official group in the national assembly. It would, in effect, disappear.

At first, President Chirac's lieutenants agreed to these terms, then published a list of candidates at the weekend, which stipulated that all must label themselves UMP.

Mr Bayrou announced yesterday that he would put up rival UDF candidates in a maximum of 200 constituencies. Although he promised to avoid areas where the National Front would be strong, the centre right will be fighting itself next month, as well as the election.

"If we are all pushed into the same mould, arms by our sides like good little soldiers, you'll see what will happen," Mr Bayrou said. "We will be rejected by the French people in two years."

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