French right takes on old fox: Clash looms with Mitterrand over foreign policy

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The Independent Online
THE easy part for France's Gaullists and centre-right UDF party will be winning Sunday's legislative election and delivering a final humiliating blow to the ruling Socialists.

Much more delicate, however, will be the task of prising the reins of power from President Francois Mitterrand over French foreign policy without setting off a crisis of confidence in the electorate and damaging the right's chances of winning the presidency in 1995.

Commentators anticipate a vicious power struggle between the governing right and the cunning old fox of French politics. Many expect that the President will try to outmanoeuvre the elected majority by invoking the prerogatives of the presidency to dominate French external relations.

While in opposition, Mr Mitterrand once wrote that the practice of 'reserving foreign affairs (for the President) violates the constitution', but no one seriously expects him to grant the elected majority the privilege of running French foreign policy without a struggle.

The fault lines which the narrow 51-to-49 per cent victory in the Maastricht referendum opened up in the electorate remain much in evidence, though they were barely alluded to by the parties in the campaign.

Politicians have not been talking much about the world beyond French borders, but ordinary people have. Be they taxi drivers, unemployed workers, businessmen, or demonstrating farmers and fishermen, they are venting their frustration on the European Community, which is becoming a prism through which to view the country's economic woes.

Issues like European integration, the 'strong franc' policy of aligning the currency with the German mark (which costs the country jobs), Gatt agreements and EC farm policy reform, are all high on the agenda for French voters. Politicians - especially on the right - are more leery of these topics though, and throughout the campaign they have done as much as possible to paper over their own deep differences of opinion.

French voters could not care less about infighting between political parties - provided the Socialists are driven from office - and the election campaign has been a somnolent affair. It barely touched on foreign policy themes, except when Gaullist leaders dropped broad protectionist hints, such as rejecting the Gatt trade agreements with the United States and rolling back EC farm policy concessions.

One of the most cynical interpretations of President Mitterrand's intentions is that he will not act aggressively for six months, to give the government a harmless honeymoon. Then, just before the European elections of 1994, 'Mitterrand will aggravate relations between the UDF and the RPR by administering a proper European-style poison', wrote Claude Imbert, editor of the independent news weekly Le Point. The technique will be one of setting the man most likely to be prime minister, Edouard Balladur, against Philippe Seguin, who, with Charles Pasqua, the Gaullist elder statesman, directed last year's anti-Maastricht campaign.

If the President can play this card to his advantage, the scene will be set for the 1995 presidential race. Mr Mitterrand is expected to keep as firm a grip as possible on French foreign policy, which voters know is playing an increasingly important role in their lives thanks to EC membership, which has opened their economy to severe global competition.

A vicious power struggle between President Mitterrand and the incoming Gaullist-UDF government over EC policy seems all the more likely in the wake of shrill protectionist noises from the Gaullist RPR party, whose members voted against the Maastricht treaty last September.

France's economy is more interdependent vis-a-vis its EC neighbours and the rest of the world than ever before. President Mitterrand has already had his office electronically linked with the Foreign Ministry and he get instant copies of all cable traffic. And he has ensured that plum ambassadorial postings have gone to many of his trusted friends in recent weeks. Despite howls of protest from the right, he shows every sign of deepening rather than lessening his involvement in the country's external relations after the vote next week.