Pasqua deals deadly blow to Chirac

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Jacques Chirac's faltering presidential election campaign yesterday suffered what may turn out to be a terminal blow. Charles Pasqua, the influential Interior Minister, announced that he would support the Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, in the A pril election.

The party that Mr Chirac founded, the Gaullist RPR, is increasingly turning against him to back Mr Balladur. The announcement means that five of the 12 RPR government ministers have decided to support the Prime Minister against only four for Mr Chirac. The very future of the party is now in doubt with a deep split emerging between adherents of the two candidates. Bernard Pons, president of the RPR group in the National Assembly, has accused Mr Balladur of "a form of treason".

Mr Pasqua is perhaps the most popular figure amongst grassroots RPR members. A leading actor in the anti-Maastricht campaign during the 1992 referendum, he has been a tough interior minister and is on the party's right wing. In a letter to Mr Chirac published yesterday, Mr Pasqua said that he wanted "to safeguard the unity and future" of the party. It cannot have been absent from his considerations that if Mr Balladur is elected president there will be a vacancy for prime minister. Mr Pasqua is currently the favourite to take up residence in the Matignon though there is no shortage of possible candidates.

The Prime Minister has still not announced his candidacy for higher office. He plans to do so next week, probably on Thursday. But it seems increasingly likely that Mr Balladur will be elected president in the two-round contest in April and May. The latest opinion polls show him beating all comers for the post. A poll for Le Parisien newspaper shows Mr Balladur taking 27 per cent of the votes in the first round against 14 per cent for Mr Chirac. In the second round Mr Balladur would beat any Socialist candidate with between 60 and 70 per cent of the vote. As well as support from the RPR, he will get votes from the centrist UDF group.

Mr Chirac intended this to be the week when his campaign took off. On Monday he launched a new book outlining his personal philosophy. On Wednesday he visited John Major. On Thursday his staff opened an office and a spokesman said that the team was "coherent, united and enthusiastic". But the man who refounded Gaullism in 1976 is having a tough time keeping the party together and his campaign afloat. The idea of a Gaullist party conference to anoint a candidate was ditched this week.

The British government will not, of course, indicate a preference for a candidate. But it is fairly clear that Mr Balladur would suit Britain down to the ground since his views on European integration are very close to those of Douglas Hurd and Mr Major.

Mr Balladur's strength in the polls could conceivably still be overturned, perhaps by unforced errors in campaigning. So far he has done little to outline his plans for the seven years that he would hold office. At a meeting this week he said that fighting unemployment would be one of the main tasks, through a reduction in the costs of employment, improved training, and the development of part-time and temporary work. This is hardly path-breaking stuff but with its focus on the detail of fiscal policy and taxation it is typical of Mr Balladur.

It is not impossible that the scandals which did so much to damage the Socialist government could start to puncture his own administration. Already three ministers have resigned because of allegations of wrong-doing and one is in prison.

The one near certainty in the campaign is that Mr Balladur will not face much opposition from the Socialist party. After Jacques Delors decided not to run for office these are thin times for the French left. It continues to be divided over the question of who should be the candidate. A nasty row has broken out after the decision of Lionel Jospin, former minister for education, to announce his "candidacy for candidacy".

Henry Emmanuelli, the first secretary of the Socialist Party, has called for a candidate of unity who could weld the left together and stand a chance of beating the Prime Minister.