Mitterrand comes out fighting

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IN 10 WEEKS the French will vote for a new government. National Assembly elections on 21 and 28 March will follow what should be the last national campaign of Francois Mitterrand's presidency.

As politicians get set for this crucial round, leaders of right and left are busy honing their battle techniques. Not on their opponents, however, but on their allies.

In government, ministers are snarling at each other semi-publicly. In the opposition, basic policies, particularly the defence of the franc, are subject to the widest differences.

President Mitterrand, 76, found to have cancer of the prostate last September, had until the New Year cultivated the aloofness for which he is renowned in anticipation of a new conservative majority tipping his Socialist allies out of power. Distancing himself from his friends made the eventual 'cohabitation' easier to assume.

Over the past week, however, he has jumped into the fray to galvanise his cabinet into standing up for itself and defending its record.

It is a hard group to galvanise. As the government heads for near-certain defeat, the staunch, old-style Socialists such as Pierre Joxe, the Defence Minister, are plainly hurt by Mr Mitterrand's apparent affection for ministers from 'civil society', non-Socialists who have distinguished themselves outside government, such as the entrepreneur Bernard Tapie or Bernard Kouchner.

Dr Kouchner, the Health and Social Affairs Minister, has been close to the President since Mr Mitterrand's operation in September - he was the President's companion during his convalescence in Britanny - and is now viewed as the main Mitterrand favourite.

Qualified as 'mediatique' by the French press, the gung-ho Dr Kouchner, a regular visitor to the world's hot spots, raised eyebrows when he heaved a sack of rice on his shoulder in Somalia before a battery of photographers. The gesture earned him the nickname 'Uncle Ben' at the Foreign Ministry, where his departures from traditional diplomacy do not go down well.

Dr Kouchner is said to have particularly irritated Mr Joxe. According to some accounts, Mr Joxe opposed France's dispatch of troops to Somalia in 'Operation Restore Hope', an involvement encouraged by Dr Kouchner.

In his Health Minister capacity, Dr Kouchner criticised a strategy promoted by Paul Quiles, the Interior Minister, to crack down on drug addiction. Dr Kouchner said 'prison will not cure addiction'. Mr Quiles responded by saying that more liberal policies risked turning 'the state and doctors into dealers'.

As the New Year dawned, the sudden cold snap which caused the deaths of half a dozen of France's 500,000 homeless led to another inter-ministerial spat. Jack Lang, the Culture and Education Minister, asked universities to open their doors to vagrants. This brought a furious response from Rene Teulade, the Social Affairs Minister, who pointed out that beds in state hostels were lying empty. He implied that Mr Lang was seeking publicity by adopting a problem outside his area of responsibility.

In the opposition, the main split has been, broadly speaking, between those who supported the ratification of the Maastricht treaty on European union and its opponents.

It touches a sacred cow: the stability of the franc. While economists of both left and right have generally agreed that the policy of supporting the franc, under attack since the Maastricht referendum in September, is the right one, others argue that this ties the French currency too closely to the mark.

Philippe Seguin, the chief anti- Maastricht campaigner, and Charles Pasqua of the Gaullist RPR argue that the franc should be effectively withdrawn from the European Monetary System, to let it find its natural level and boost the economy. A surprise recruit to the same position has been Alain Madelin of Valery Giscard d'Estaing's Union for French Democracy (UDF), a Maastricht supporter, who argues that floating the franc would free France of high Bundesbank-imposed interest rates.

The National Assembly campaign is just a precursor of the coming presidential battle, making the individual stances of the various players important because, eventually, individuals will be under the spotlight when the real prize looms.

Although President Mitterrand has until May 1995, when his term runs out, his health and age make his prospects a matter for legitimate speculation. At a New Year reception for the press on Wednesday, Mr Mitterrand ended an informal conversation with the words 'see you next year', a clear hint that he intends to stay.

(Photograph omitted)