Nasreen affair adds to PM's troubles

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The Independent Online
FRANCE's reluctance to admit Taslima Nasreen, the exiled Bangladeshi writer facing a death threat from Islamic fundamentalists, has dented the credibility of Edouard Balladur's government, just as the Prime Minister is gearing up for next spring's presidential election.

Ms Nasreen, who lives in Sweden, was first granted only a 24-hour visa to appear on France's main cultural television programme Bouillon de Culture on Friday. Alain Juppe, the Foreign Minister, said Charles Pasqua, the Interior Minister, had said her security could not be guaranteed for longer.

When Ms Nasreen refused, the government changed its tune, offering her a visa for 'three or four days' on condition that she remained under guard behind closed doors. This, too, she refused.

In a country priding itself on the arrest of the terrorist Carlos and its crackdown on suspected Islamic fundamentalists, such behaviour was seen as ridiculous or worse.

'It has an unpleasant smell of cowardice,' said Alain Genestar, the editor of the weekly Le Journal du Dimanche yesterday. Francoise Giroud, a writer and one-time centrist minister, said the behaviour was that of 'official France, the one which only pays lip service to the rights of man'.

These are hard days for Mr Balladur who, buoyed by unprecedented popularity throughout his first 18 months in office, is tipped as the best-placed politician to be elected president when Francois Mitterrand's mandate ends in May.

The Nasreen affair came after other problems. First were allegations of political corruption likely to force the resignation of at least one senior minister. This was followed by criticism that a survey of youth concerns ordered by Mr Balladur had inspired lightweight, unrealistic responses from government-appointed experts.

Then, Philippe Seguin, the Gaullist president of the National Assembly and an anti- Maastricht campaigner, incited parliamentarians not to let the government have its way by allowing a budget issue to be dealt with in Brussels with a minimum of parliamentary procedure.

Mr Seguin, in his 1992 anti- Maastricht referendum campaign, complained that France too often limited itself to rubber-stamping European legislation, without proper discussion.

The latest move was seen as a signal that Mr Seguin wants all opinions on Europe to be heard during the presidential campaign. This should give a rough ride both to Mr Balladur and his most likely left- wing opponent, Jacques Delors, who owes his presidential stature to his leadership of the European Commission for the past 10 years.

It was also Mr Seguin who pushed Mr Balladur into accepting a review of measures to combat political corruption last week. The Prime Minister had said there was no need for new legislation.

Mr Seguin, who backs Jacques Chirac, the RPR party's president over Mr Balladur as the RPR candidate for the presidency, is showing his capacity to be a thorn in the Prime Minister's side as the campaign picks up.