Leotard ready to rejoin French political game

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FRANCOIS LEOTARD, a promising young politician on the French right until he was charged with corruption five months ago, broke a self-imposed silence at the weekend, positioning himself for the post of prime minister after elections in March.

Mr Leotard, 50, a leader of the centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF), saying that he expected the charges to be dropped, announced last week that he would stand again for the Mediterranean port of Frejus which he has represented in the National Assembly since 1978. When he was charged last June, Mr Leotard resigned all elected offices and said he would not speak out until he was cleared.

The suspicion was that he had acquired a house in Frejus for far less than the market value from a firm of developers in return for municipal building contracts. A preliminary prosecution report leaked recently suggested that there was no evidence that the developers were given irregular favours.

Until he was charged, Mr Leotard appeared to be a serious future presidential contender. He was one of a few with the stature to challenge the two main conservative leaders, Valery Giscard d'Estaing of the UDF and Jacques Chirac, a Gaullist.

In interviews coinciding with his decision to speak at a UDF meeting at the weekend, Mr Leotard said he would accept the post of prime minister - for which he was tipped before last June - if a new 'cohabitation' cabinet were formed in March. 'If I had that honour, I would accept it,' he said.

The first cohabition government, with Mr Chirac as prime minister while Francois Mitterrand, a Socialist, ran defence and foreign affairs as President, served from 1986 to 1988. Mr Mitterrand will have two years of his presidential term to serve after the 28 March National Assembly election. All opinion polls point to a conservative victory.

Mr Leotard was supported in his decision to return to active politics by Mr Chirac who said: 'I am convinced that the dropping of charges is imminent.' Mr Chirac, who says he will not serve as prime minister again, is believed to favour Mr Leotard over the other possible UDF candidate, Mr Giscard d'Estaing. Mr Chirac and Mr Giscard d'Estaing have been bitter rivals since the Gaullist resigned as prime minister under the UDF president in 1976. The two are jostling to be the right's presidential candidate in 1995.

Mr Mitterrand last week came up with long-promised proposals for constitutional reform which included the suggestion of a six-year presidential mandate, to replace the present seven-year term.