Infighting on French right dogs PM: Balladur finds his huge parliamentary majority hard to handle

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The Independent Online
ALTHOUGH Edouard Balladur still holds the high ground in public opinion polls after two and a half months as France's Prime Minister, his policies are under critical scrutiny.

What is worrying for him is that this comes mainly from his parliamentary supporters and natural constituents, such as business leaders. Even more worrying is that much of the parliamentary criticism comes from within his Gaullist RPR party.

On two occasions in recent weeks, Jacques Chirac, the RPR head and most likely Gaullist candidate for the next presidential elections in 1995, has had to intervene to calm his colleagues.

With 484 seats for the right in the 577-seat National Assembly, frictions between the RPR and the centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF) had been expected at some time. The Gaullists have 247 seats to the UDF's 213. The other 24 seats are held by independent conservatives. While the two parties, never the best of friends, have started to quarrel, the internal Gaullist frictions appear to justify fears that Mr Balladur expressed privately before elections in March that a huge parliamentary majority could be difficult to manage.

Taking office on 30 March, Mr Balladur said that, with a critical economic situation, there were no easy solutions and the remedies would hurt. It was a message that went down well with the public. An opinion poll published this week in Paris Match showed the Prime Minister was riding high, with 61 per cent hoping he would be a presidential candidate and 56 per cent expressing confidence that he would right the economy.

But it was on the economy that Mr Balladur first prompted unease. An austerity package in May was seen as timid and the Bourse index fell. A later decision to issue a government bond for 40bn francs ( pounds 4.7bn) to await the proceeds of privatisation did little to redress the balance.

In the most severe criticism so far, the monthly bulletin of the Union of Metallurgical and Mining Industries, the employers' association for a crucial economic sector, said the government had not properly 'assessed the hierarchy of urgency'. Its plans had shown 'the absence of a deep and global vision'.

Discussing the Prime Minister's continuing popularity, the bulletin added: 'Sensitive perhaps to Mr Balladur's pedagogical offerings, the French have, it seems, decided to put their trust in him for the moment and to drive all worries from their heads until after the holidays.'

In parliament, the underlying frailty came to a head three weeks ago with virulent attacks on a plan announced by Francois Leotard, the UDF Defence Minister, to cut 10,000 troops from the armed forces and close bases. This threatened to explode into a full-scale crisis between the two conservative parties. The leader of the attacks was Bernard Pons, the head of the RPR parliamentary group. They ended when Mr Chirac weighed in to express his support for military reorganisation.

Mr Chirac intervened again this week to persuade his RPR colleagues that they should back the government's decision to accept the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade accord on oilseeds, under which France will have to cut production and import from the United States and elsewhere. Although the larger issue of the Washington compromise on agriculture still promises a crisis between France and its European Community partners, many deputies saw the oilseeds agreement as a sign of too great a willingness to compromise.

As for RPR-UDF relations, Nicolas Sarkozy, the RPR Budget Minister and government spokesman, in a recent meeting with UDF deputies, chided them for being impolite. Half the deputies left the hall.

Against this background, the Gaullists are pushing Mr Balladur to head a joint list of both parties in next year's European elections, a test of opinion 12 months before the presidential poll. For the moment, UDF leaders seem tempted to run a separate list and stress their individuality, leaving displays of unity for more vital occasions.

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