Rocard refuses left's poisoned chalice

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As the French left digested Jacques Delors' decision not to stand in next spring's presidential elections, Michel Rocard, a Socialist former prime minister, said yesterday that he would not be a candidate either.

Mr Rocard, ousted as Socialist Party first secretary after a poor showing in last June's European elections, was responding to an opinion poll in which he came second after Jack Lang, the former culture minister, as favourite to represent the left in theelections to find a successor to Francois Mitterrand.

Given that the Socialists, whose only hope was Mr Delors, are expected to be roundly defeated, the poll was unlikely to change Mr Rocard's earlier decision to stay out of the race.

There were reports that Bernard Tapie, the controversial entrepreneur turned politician, was considering standing for his centre-left Radical Party. In the European elections, Mr Tapie's list of candidates took 12.5 per cent against 14 per cent for the Socialists: a success for Mr Tapie's marginal party, and a disaster for the Socialists.

Mr Tapie, a blustering poor-boy-made-good currently facing bankruptcy hearings - his Paris house was opened to potential buyers yesterday after it was seized by creditors - could be expected to take a lot of votes from the Socialists again. But he said on television last night that he would not be a candidate.

The Socialists plan to choose a candidate to replace Mr Delors at a national convention next month. Among other possible candidates is Mr Delors' daughter, Martine Aubry, who was labour minister in the last Socialist government.

A popular and eloquent politician, Mrs Aubry, although she would have little chance against the powerful conservative majority, would break ground as the first woman put up for the Elysee Palace by a mainstream party.

Mr Delors' withdrawal on Sunday, after a month of topping the opinion polls, is seen as giving the right a clear run at the presidency. But one fear among the Gaullist-conservative governing coalition is that a multitude of right-wingers will stand simply to test their chances. Until now, the only two serious candidates have been Edouard Balladur, the Prime Minister, and Jacques Chirac, both of the Gaullist RPR party.

Charles Millon, leader of the National Assembly group of the centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF), had said he would stand for his party if no good UDF candidate came forward. After Mr Delors' announcement, Mr Millon said he would step down "within a minute" if Raymond Barre, the former prime minister, decided to be a candidate. Of possible UDF choices, only Mr Barre is thought capable of giving the two Gaullists a real challenge.

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