Leotard slips on climb to French political summit

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UNTIL this week, Francois Leotard looked unstoppable. A youthful and personable 50-year- old with a moderate centre-right message, he seemed well placed to become a serious presidential contender within the next few years.

With the hackneyed duel between his former mentor, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former president, and Jacques Chirac, the Gaullist leader, well into its second decade, Mr Leotard has a freshness that few on the right can claim. Earlier this month, he braved the wrath of other conservatives to appear on the same platform as Pierre Beregovoy, the Socialist Prime Minister, to campaign for ratification of the Maastricht treaty.

Paris Match this week singled out Mr Leotard, who was a novice monk as a young man, as the probable conservative candidate for the presidency in the year 2000. The magazine named Laurent Fabius, the former prime minister and Socialist first secretary, as his likely opponent.

But on Monday, Mr Leotard's climb to the summits of French politics came abruptly to a halt. An examining magistrate laid charges, including corruption, against him over the purchase of a house near his home town of Frejus. While he may yet prove his innocence, for the time being he is tarred with the brush of fraud, like a number of his contemporaries.

Mr Leotard's immediate reaction was to resign from all his political posts, as a National Assembly deputy, mayor of Frejus and honorary president of the Republican Party, one of the components of the conservative Union for French Democracy. Once he had cleared his name, he said, he would return before the voters to resume his political career.

If he succeeds, then the episode could prove to be just a minor obstacle on the road to the top. After all, even Francois Mitterrand once had his parliamentary immunity lifted so he could be investigated - and cleared - of allegations against him.

If, however, things turn against Mr Leotard, then his prospects for high office will be dashed. And that will leave virtually nobody in the wings to take over leadership of the conservative right.

The only other young leader with anything like his stature is Michel Noir, the ex-Gaullist mayor of Lyons. But he too is tarnished by a dispute with his son- in-law, who is reported to be in financial trouble.

The specific allegation against Mr Leotard is that he bought a house, which he used to rent, for 1.2m francs ( pounds 120,000) in 1986. The vendor had bought the property some years before for nearly six times that price. When first questioned about the deal, Mr Leotard's defence was that he had carried out work on the house and had not bought all the original land. After he agreed to pay additional tax for the purchase, the matter seemed closed.

But a new problem surfaced. The vendor, Henri Meyer, had won a tender from Frejus municipality to build a new harbour for yachts. Rene Espanol, an unsuccessful bidder for the contract, filed a complaint. Mr Leotard is now the seventh man charged in the affair.

Mr Leotard is the second French politician to resign in recent weeks. Last month, Bernard Tapie, the entrepreneur and main shareholder of Adidas, left his post as Minister for Towns after only seven weeks because of fraud charges. Jean-Michel Boucheron, the former Socialist mayor of Angouleme and a sitting deputy, has been charged with embezzling town funds.

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