French right wing sets a primary goal

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The Independent Online
CHARLES PASQUA, the Gaullist Interior Minister, said yesterday he intended to introduce a parliamentary bill for primary elections to produce a single conservative presidential candidate in next year's election.

Mr Pasqua, in an interview with Le Figaro, said he would propose the procedure for the primaries, which have been mooted for several years, in the spring session of parliament. The proposal came just as the consensus between Mr Pasqua's Gaullist RPR party and the centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF), founded by the former president Valery Giscard d'Estaing, has been threatened by arguments over government policy.

Friction between Jacques Chirac, the RPR president, and fellow RPR member Edouard Balladur, the Prime Minister, came to a head on Tuesday at a weekly lunch of leaders of the governing majority when Mr Chirac launched an attack on the government.

Mr Chirac has seen his own presidential ambitions upset by Mr Balladur's unexpectedly good performance in opinion polls since he became Prime Minister last March. Now he is seen as the man best placed to succeed when President Francois Mitterrand's term ends in May 1995.

With many members of the RPR still loyal to Mr Chirac, it was, ironically, UDF politicians who rallied to Mr Balladur. Francois Leotard, the UDF Defence Minister, who was picked out for particular criticism by Mr Chirac, repeated his own commitment to a Balladur candidature for the Elysee Palace. 'You should pass the ball to the one who can score a goal,' he said.

Bernard Bosson, the centrist Transport Minister, said he feared the governing majority was 'putting back in service the machine that loses'. Ladislas Poniatowski, the UDF spokesman, attacked 'those who criticise the government with an eye on the presidency'.

The French right has been dogged for nearly 20 years by a tiresome rivalry between Mr Chirac and Mr Giscard d'Estaing. This has been seen as one of the factors which helped the Socialist Mr Mitterrand take the presidency in 1981 and 1988.

Much of Mr Balladur's popularity is attributed to the fact that he is outside such quarrels and, although he has been in the upper reaches of the Gaullist hierarchy for nearly 30 years, is seen as a new man by the French electorate. He remains in a commanding position and is rated France's most popular politician.

The idea of primaries has been debated since the mid-1980s. However, some conservative politicians oppose the concept because they believe that only political militants would take part and that this could distort the choice.

If primaries are approved and if Mr Balladur does decide to stand, this will accelerate the start of the presidential race and upset his own stated desire not to let the campaign get in the way of government before the beginning of next year.