Pompidou's heirs vie to match his achievement: A poignant anniversary has given rise to reflection on who will run France into the next century, writes Julian Nundy in Paris

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The Independent Online
FRANCE'S leading Gaullist politicians paid their respects to President Georges Pompidou on the 20th anniversary of his death as the men whose careers he launched now vie with each other to run the nation into the 21st century.

Edouard Balladur, the Prime Minister, Jacques Chirac, president of the Gaullist RPR party and Mayor of Paris, and Philippe Seguin, president of the National Assembly, were among those at Orvilliers, west of the capital, at Pompidou's tomb on Saturday.

The anniversary, accompanied by the publication of several books about a president who not only took over from Charles de Gaulle in 1969 but was his prime minister when the student riots of 1968 rocked the state, has given rise to reflection about how those who learnt the ropes of government under him might run France for the next few years.

Pompidou died of leukemia after five years at the Elysee Palace, where he had equipped a room with pinball machines to indulge one of his passions.

Now he is seen not just as the successor to de Gaulle but as a man who modernised France, giving it, among other things, a motorway network and a high-speed rail system. He built up the social services of which the French are now so proud and presided over a modernisation of industry which made France Europe's second industrial power after West Germany. His presidency coincided with the time when France changed from being an outwardly peasant society, with almost all women over 60 wearing mourning black, to the more easy-going society which followed the upheaval of 1968.

Mr Balladur, 64, who as secretary-general of the Elysee was one of Pompidou's closest aides in his last days, has often been painted as the archetypal modern 'Pompidolien', even though the carefully dressed and patrician Prime Minister differs in many respects from the chain-smoking and earthy Pompidou, who started his adult life teaching the classics.

Mr Chirac, 61, who, as a junior minister under Pompidou packed a pistol when he went to meet Henri Krasucki, a senior official of the Communist-led CGT union, during the 1968 riots, is seen as having more of Pompidou's ease with the grass roots. Mr Chirac went on to be the first prime minister of Valery Giscard d'Estaing, Pompidou's immediate successor.

Mr Seguin, 50, on the Elysee staff for the last year of Pompidou's life, is the youngest of the leaders who paid tribute to Pompidou on Saturday. He attained national stature in 1992 when he led an almost successful campaign, in opposition to Mr Balladur and Mr Chirac, against ratification of the Maastricht European Union treaty.

Mr Balladur, although he has not said he will be a candidate, is considered the best-placed politician to succeed Francois Mitterrand as President in the next presidential election in 13 months' time. Mr Chirac, the official Gaullist candidate, is said by associates to be fiercely jealous of a man he promoted only to fall behind him in the polls.

In the wings is Mr Seguin who, although he could stand next year, is more likely to be a contender at the following election, in 2002.

Mr Seguin, although of the same party, has become a strong critic of Mr Balladur's government style.

'Do we have the right to claim inspiration from this example?' Mr Balladur asked by Pompidou's tomb before giving the answer himself. 'Yes. For 20 years, each of us in his way has made the necessary effort to ensure that the ideal which he transmitted to us, and which he himself took from General de Gaulle, remains our own.'

Pompidou legacy, page 14

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