Mitterrand plays it cool in dispute

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PRESIDENT Francois Mitterrand defused a dispute between his Socialist supporters and Edouard Balladur yesterday, demonstrating a desire to keep the political scene cool and, perhaps, to protect the Gaullist Prime Minister from controversy.

At the weekly cabinet meeting, Mr Mitterrand had been expected to make some comment on a polemic between the Prime Minister and Robert Badinter, the president of the Constitutional Council, which examines the constitutionality of all new legislation.

In the event, the President's spokesman said only that Mr Mitterrand had raised the matter with Mr Balladur before the cabinet and would meet Mr Badinter later in the day.

Last Friday, the two houses of parliament met in Congress in Versailles to amend the constitution to accommodate new rules on granting political asylum, part of an immigration law. The Constitutional Council ruled in August that the new rules did not conform with the constitution of the Fifth Republic.

The ruling angered the government and this was reflected in Mr Balladur's speech to Congress. He said the council had adopted principles that were 'sometimes more philosophical and political than juridical'. Mr Badinter, whose post normally requires him to keep silent, replied three days later in an article in Le Monde, asking whether 'every minority is juridically wrong when it is in a political minority'.

Mr Mitterrand's apparent desire not to fan the flames of this argument demonstrated the difference between the current 'cohabitation' - conservative government under the Socialist head of state - and its only precedent when Jacques Chirac, the head of the Gaullist RPR party, was prime minister from 1986 to 1988.

Then such disputes, however minor or esoteric, were seized on by all sides for confrontation. But those years were also followed by a presidential election in which Mr Chirac lost to Mr Mitterrand.

Now Mr Mitterrand, still said to harbour an enmity for Mr Chirac, the RPR's main candidate for the presidency in 1995, is not in the running. This, however, does not prevent him influencing the choice of his successor. Political commentators believe he is cultivating Mr Balladur, who is riding high in the opinion polls, as a rival to Mr Chirac since the current signs are that no left-wing candidate stands a realistic chance.