Greens overtake Socialists in French poll

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ECOLOGISTS could gain as many votes as the ruling Socialists in French elections in two months' time or even overtake them, according to two opinion polls published yesterday.

The polls were the latest indications of a Socialist rout in elections to the National Assembly on 21 and 28 March, which are expected to bring in a conservative government. One poll, by the CSA institute for the popular newspaper Le Parisien, gave the ecologists 19 per cent to 17.5 per cent for the Socialists. The other, conducted by BVA for Paris-Match magazine, gave the ecologists 19 per cent, just behind the Socialists, who had 19.5 per cent. Both gave the centre-right opposition 41 per cent.

The two ecology parties, Generation Ecologie led by Brice Lalonde, a former environment minister, and the Greens of Antoine Waechter, are fielding joint candidates. Considered left-wing, they have been distancing themselves from the Socialists in recent days.

On Wednesday Mr Lalonde, in a live television appearance with Laurent Fabius, the Socialist First Secretary, said: 'People whose heart is on the left don't believe you any more, Laurent. Your world is crumbling around you.'

Mr Fabius appealed to the ecologists to work with the Socialists, but Mr Lalonde spurned his offer. 'I no longer believe in the sincerity of Socialist leaders,' he said. 'It's all smiles on television and banana skins in the corridor.' Mr Lalonde was environment minister for three years until last April in the Socialist governments led by Michel Rocard and Edith Cresson.

While the ecologists' rise seems impressive, it is unlikely to give them many seats in the new parliament. The BVA poll predicted a maximum of 24 seats in the 577-seat assembly. The right is tipped to win up to 450. A new government might, however, be tempted to offer the ecologists the environment portfolio, as the Socialists did, to dilute its conservative image.

This week, the campaign moved up a gear. On Wednesday, the first television debate, between Pierre Beregovoy, the Prime Minister, and Francois Leotard, of the centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF), who is a prime ministerial contender, produced a no-score draw, with both men going out of their way to avoid confrontation.

This is in keeping with a campaign which is already little more than a sideshow. The real problems, and the real interest, will come after 28 March when President Francois Mitterrand has to choose a new prime minister. Already the candidates are jostling each other like penguins on an ice floe. His choice will set the tone for the two years of left- right cohabitation leading up to the next presidential elections in May 1995.

The line-up goes from Edouard Balladur, the former Gaullist finance minister and so far the leading candidate, to Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former president, via Mr Leotard, Raymond Barre, who was prime minister from 1976 to 1981, and Rene Monory, the president of the Senate.

About the only man on the right who seemed excluded was Jacques Chirac, the leader of the Gaullist Rally for the Republic (RPR), who has said he will not serve. But this week, Charles Pasqua, one of the Gaullist 'mammoths', said President Mitterrand would be obliged to offer Mr Chirac the post if the RPR emerged as the leading party.

Since then commentators have speculated that Mr Chirac, the best-placed conservative candidate for the presidency, might go for prime minister. It would be in keeping with a career that has already seen two two-year terms under presidents he did not like. Mr Chirac held the post from 1974 to 1976 when he quit under President Giscard d'Estaing. Then he was prime minister for the first 1986-88 cohabitation, under Mr Mitterrand until the latter defeated him in the last presidential election.