Mitterrand fends off accusation of hurting Socialists

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WITH THE French left facing defeat in next month's elections and in open dispute over the way forward, President Francois Mitterrand yesterday tried to fight off his image as the Socialist Party's greatest handicap and defend his government against charges of corruption.

The President, appearing on television for a second day running to field viewers' questions, defended his prime minister, Pierre Beregovoy, who has been accused of accepting a pounds 125,000 interest-free loan. 'It pains me to see an honest man accused,' said Mr Mitterrand, who went on to say that 58 of 577 French MPs were under criminal investigation.

His response to public disillusionment over the behaviour of the political class was to say that politicians were not more corrupt, it was just that changes in the law made their exposure easier. The perception that the 76-year-old President is increasingly out of touch has been heightened by a challenge to the left from Michel Rocard, the principal pretender to the President's throne. President Mitterrand countered his former prime minister's plea for the creation of a new-look Socialist Party by saying there was not much wrong with the old one.

Mr Mitterrand's decision to harness state television to the Socialist cause may have backfired, judging by the low ratings and a critical press. The problems of unemployment, recession, immigration and education dominated the debate yesterday night as on Thursday, but the President's replies were lacklustre. The few viewers who bothered to tune in complained that he failed to answer questions directly.

In such an atmosphere, Mr Rocard's pitch for the hearts and minds of Socialist-leaning supporters, his recipe for a 'rainbow coalition' to break with the past, may yet find favour. Yesterday many leading politicians on the left and to some extent the centre had cautiously endorsed the plan.

Pierre Mauroy, the former party leader and an old-style Socialist, had complained that the plan was flawed and the timing, five weeks before the first round of voting, a disaster. But yesterday he issued a statement saying: 'Michel Rocard was right to begin drawing out a more diverse grouping of the left. He has boosted morale by showing that we have our sights set beyond the legislative elections and on the 1995 presidential race. Even one of Rocard's arch-political enemies, Julien Dray, admitted the move was courageous, saying: 'We would all be dead if he hadn't said it.'

The notable exceptions remain the supporters of Laurent Fabius, the party leader, and the ecologists, who are enjoying a huge surge in popular support that could give them greater representation in the National Assembly after 28 March than the Socialists.

On the right, itself divided on many issues, particularly Europe, Mr Rocard's 'big-bang' has been derided. 'The behaviour of the Socialist Party calls to mind the Titanic,' said Charles Pasqua of the Gaullist RPR. 'The captain tied himself to the wheel of the sinking ship while the first mate desparately jumped overboard before it was too late.' The rightwing was yesterday further heartened by another opinion poll showing that their figurehead, Jacques Chirac, would beat Mr Rocard by 55 per cent to 45 per cent in the presidential election, were the vote to be held now.

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