Leotard sets sights on premiership of France

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FRANCOIS LEOTARD, a leader of the centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF), made a clear attempt to bolster his candidature for the post of prime minister yesterday with the publication of a manifesto in which he said the government elected this month would have only 60 days to make its mark.

Mr Leotard, 50, published the 15-point plan in the conservative daily Le Figaro. He is considered the most likely candidate for prime minister if the UDF gains more seats than its partner, the Gaullist RPR.

The RPR is expected to emerge as the largest party in the National Assembly elections on 21 and 28 March, but recent opinion polls have put the two parties neck-and neck.

If the Gaullists do take more seats in what is billed as a conservative landslide, then the prime minister running France's second experiment in cohabitation - conservative government under a Socialist president - is likely to be Edouard Balladur, who was finance minister under Jacques Chirac in the first, 1986-88, cohabitation.

Whatever the expectations, the choice is President Francois Mitterrand's and will be decided after the second round of the parliamentary election.

In a preamble to his programme, Mr Leotard said 'the government will have only 60 days to convince' the voters, reflecting a belief that, with two years to go before the end of President Mitterrand's term, the country will soon be plunged back into electioneering. The right's fear is that, as incumbent, it will be in danger of losing power in 1995, as in 1988, when Mr Mitterrand defeated Mr Chirac in the last presidential election.

The conditions have changed somewhat, since Mr Mitterrand will not be seeking a new mandate, but the recession and associated social problems make France harder to govern than before.

Both Mr Chirac and Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former president, two other obvious prime ministerial candidates, have said they are not available. Part of their logic is thought to be motivated by a desire to stand in the next presidential elections and the belief that the successful candidate would do better to stay out of the day-to-day fray in a fraught economic climate.

Mr Leotard, who returned to the political scene last month after corruption charges against him involving a house purchase were dropped, is also thought to have presidential ambitions. But his turn is likely to come in the presidential contest after next, in 2002. A spell as prime minister now, while perhaps eliminating him in the short term, could stand him in good stead in the long run.

The 15 points, including reviving professional education and apprenticeship programmes to fight unemployment, and an early start to privatisations, were all elements of policy which the new government should set in motion in its first few weeks, he said.

Replying to conservatives who say the right should refuse to govern if Mr Mitterrand does not accept the logical consequences of the expected Socialist defeat and retire, Mr Leotard said the RPR- UDF alliance 'must govern, with, without, or against, the President of the Republic'.

Mr Giscard d'Estaing said in a radio interview that the RPR and UDF should share the main state and government posts equally, evidently reflecting a fear that his 20-year rivalry with Mr Chirac could prompt the Gaullists to be greedy. He suggested that if the prime minister came from the RPR, the president of the National Assembly should be from the UDF.