Gaullist patrician the man most likely to succeed: Balladur is hot tip for PM, writes Julian Nundy in Paris

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THERE was no point, the man said, in voting against the Socialist government if the electorate did not believe the right could do any better. 'If nothing else can be done,' said Edouard Balladur, 'then there is no reason to change.'

The man most likely to be France's next prime minister can hardly be accused of rabble-rousing. The above statement, made during an address to an election rally in Paris's sixth arrondissement, was typical of the low-key style of this soft-spoken, white-haired patrician who, for 18 months now, has been tipped as the Gaullist candidate to run the government in the cohabitation which will be born out of the expected conservative landslide in the second round of France's National Assembly elections tomorrow.

As Finance Minister in the first cohabitation under Jacques Chirac, Mr Balladur, 63, a graduate of the elite Ecole Nationale d'Administration, was responsible for the policy of privatisation which undid a lot of the nationalisation carried out after the Socialist Francois Mitterrand was first elected to the presidency in 1981.

Mr Balladur, who was born in Turkey, has had a public-service career which took him to the post of secretary-general of the Elysee Palace under Georges Pompidou before he went into politics proper. Ahead of the 1986-88 cohabitation he attracted attention writing in Le Monde about how a left-right power-sharing agreement could work. So doing, he became known as the architect of a system which many political analysts thought was unviable. When it finally came to pass, he was accorded the title of Minister of State, an honour only given to the top two or three members of French cabinets.

In memoirs describing the 1986-88 cohabitation, the courtly Mr Balladur dropped a few saucy indiscretions about what cabinet meetings were like. He was in the habit of sending Mr Mitterrand notes commenting on the mediocrity of one or other minister's presentation.

In summer 1991, as opinion polls began to predict the right was due to come back to power in this month's National Assembly elections, came the first hints, in an article by Nicolas Sarkozy, deputy secretary of the Gaullist RPR party, that the former finance minister was the Gaullist choice for a second bout.

It seemed a prudent choice. In its first version, cohabitation, as Mr Chirac learnt to his cost, needed a diplomatic persona, who could co-exist with the wily head of state without ruffling his feathers. The respectful Mr Balladur seemed to fit that bill.

There is one thing, however, that Mr Balladur is said, as he has prepared to move into the prime minister's residence at the Hotel Matignon, to be wary of: a huge right-wing majority in parliament, one in which the right's divisions would soon appear, the pro- and anti-European feelings, the supporters and opponents of maintaining a strong franc linked to the German mark.

That is just what there will be on Monday and fears that it could be difficult to manage, with around 100 new deputies among the expected 450 conservatives in a 577-seat house probably baying for Mr Mitterrand's departure, might yet prompt Mr Chirac, said to be the only personality on the right with the authority to control such a parliament, to opt for his third two-year spell as prime minister. But this is an outside possibility and was made unlikely by a dispute which erupted on Thursday between Mr Chirac and the Elysee.

Elysee sources and Roland Dumas, the Foreign Minister, let it be known that Mr Chirac had angered Mr Mitterrand by calling for him to take blame for his party's defeat and step down. It was possible, they said, that the President would decide not to take a Gaullist prime minister and opt for one from the UDF, most probably Valery Giscard d'Estaing or Francois Leotard. This was the first time Mr Balladur's move to the Hotel Matignon was seriously put in doubt.

Yesterday Mr Balladur sought to calm the situation. Speaking on Radio Luxembourg, he said 'it was normal for the atmosphere to become tense' in the last days of a campaign. Earlier, he told a campaign meeting that the new majority should be 'strong, tolerant and respectful of the constitution', a clear indication that he wanted it to stay out of disputes with the President.

Asked how long he expected the new government to last, he insisted that it would be in power for the full five-year legislature and not just up to the 1995 presidential vote. Sources have said contacts are already under way between Mr Balladur and the Elysee on his takeover next week.

(Photograph omitted)