Mitterrand angry over image in public eye

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PRESIDENT Francois Mitterrand, angered by reports that he is backing Bernard Tapie to undermine his own Socialist Party, has given his aides an angry dressing-down about his image in French public opinion.

According to leaks from the meeting, which Mr Mitterrand called on his return from a visit to Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan last Saturday, officials at the Elysee Palace said they had never seen him so angry in his 13 years as President and were surprised by the harshness of his language.

Mr Mitterrand's anger was prompted by reports in the French media that he was backing Mr Tapie, the controversial businessman turned politician, against Michel Rocard, the Socialist Party first secretary and a rival of Mr Mitterrand for many years. Mr Tapie has put together his own centre-left list for the European elections next month and this is expected to draw votes away from Mr Rocard, who was prime minister under Mr Mitterrand from 1988 to 1991.

Mr Rocard's performance in the European election is seen as a pointer to his chances for the presidency when Mr Mitterrand's term ends in a year's time.

Last month, the French soccer federation stripped Mr Tapie, who was minister for towns in the last Socialist government, of his post of president of the Olympique de Marseille (OM) soccer club because of charges that OM bribed players of the northern Valenciennes side last year to fix a league match.

In addition, Mr Tapie faces charges connected with the alleged financial mismanagement of some of his companies and investigations are pending into other areas of his finances. Recently, the state-owned Credit Lyonnais bank re-negotiated his debts.

Despite his problems, the blunt- talking Mr Tapie, 51, keeps rising in public esteem, particularly in Marseilles where he apparently wishes to take the powerful post of mayor in municipal elections next year. His opponents dismiss him as a dangerous populist and comparisons with Italy's Silvio Berlusconi are rife.

At Saturday's meeting, Mr Mitterrand, 77, referring to those 'in whose way I stand', told his advisers that he would be supporting Mr Rocard's list in the European elections.

'I am astonished by what I read in the press,' he told them, according to accounts leaked to the French media.