Mayor's disappearance spices up Nice election: A local politician goes missing before France's National Assembly vote on Sunday

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ESTABLISHING what appears to have become a local tradition, the mayor of Nice has disappeared from the city hall. Members of his staff said yesterday that Honore Bailet, a Gaullist, had not been seen since he left for a holiday in Tunisia on 17 February.

Mr Bailet, 73, is the much contested successor to Jacques Medecin, the former mayor who fled the country in the summer of 1990 for Uruguay to avoid tax fraud charges. Mr Bailet's disappearance became apparent when a press conference he was due to hold on the city's budget on Wednesday was conducted by lower officials who could offer no explanation for their chief's absence.

Since Mr Bailet, who is also a member of the Senate or upper house of parliament, went to Tunisia, the problems posed by what many local politicians see as a weak style of management were amplified when his step-son, Carmelo Fedele, was charged with assault on 24 February in connection with the murder of a Nice restaurant owner.

Mr Bailet then issued a statement from Tunisia saying he would remain at the head of the Nice municipality, although a number of councillors threatened to resign unless he stood down. He has not resumed his functions, but officials said he kept an appointment with his cardiologist in Nice at the beginning of this month.

The disappearance adds a dash of suspense to the campaign in the city for the National Assembly elections which start on Sunday. Criticism of how Nice, where the far-right National Front is one of the strongest parties, is run has been a central theme of the election campaign so far.

Mr Bailet's behaviour will certainly add weight to calls for the Nice city elections, scheduled for 1995, to be brought forward and settle the Medecin succession - Mr Medecin and his father before him ran the city for 62 years - once and for all. Mr Bailet, very much a compromise candidate, was elected by a majority of town councillors in 1990 but no new public elections were held.

With just two days of the official campaign to run, few other parts of France could offer such spice.

The coalition of the Gaullist RPR and the centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF) is tipped for a landslide victory in the elections which end with the second, run-off round on 28 March. This will leave President Francois Mitterrand, a Socialist, without parliamentary support, in charge of an uneasy left-right 'cohabitation' and having to rule with a conservative prime minister.

Fishermen's violence in a number of French ports to protest against the importation of cheap fish, principally from Russia, has added a nasty touch to the final days of an otherwise tranquil election. In Bayonne, a policeman who was injured in a clash on Wednesday, was in a coma and doctors said his condition was critical.

On the purely political front, Brice Lalonde, one of the ecologist leaders and a former environment minister in the Socialist government, accused the Socialists of setting up a number of fringe ecologist groups to dissipate the 'green' vote on Sunday. His attack could reinforce earlier ecologists' statements that they would not enter into between-round alliances to help Socialist candidates win the final vote. Yesterday Le Monde reported that the Socialist Party would tell candidates to drop out in favour of better-placed ecologists after Sunday's first round of voting to enhance their prospects the following week. The report said the decision would be endorsed by the party executive on Sunday. They did not expect the ecologists to reciprocate.

(Photograph omitted)