Socialist defeat may prompt Delors to make a comeback: EC President has chance of returning to French politics

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The Independent Online
IT WAS 10 years ago, on 25 March 1983, that France first heard about the 'Delors Plan'. It was one of those austerity packages that infuriate the consumer. It raised taxes on petrol and national health and social security contributions; it slashed to a pittance the sum of money that the French were allowed to take abroad.

Jacques Delors was finance minister from 1981 to 1984, remembered as the bumpiest years of modern Socialist rule in France. Those years came to an end with the Gaullist and conservative triumph in parliamentary elections last Sunday. Mr Delors presided over a nationalisation programme that the right undid when it took power in the first cohabitation with Francois Mitterrand, the Socialist President, from 1986 to 1988.

The early Socialist years were years of successive devaluations within the European Monetary System, years of strikes and demonstrations. They were years that led Mr Mitterrand to change tack and pronounce his support for 'a mixed economy'.

Mr Delors, an economist who had been an adviser to Jacques Chaban-Delmas, the radical Gaullist prime minister under President Georges Pompidou, held a special position inside the Socialist team at that time. With his quiet manner and cross- party background, he was seen as non-ideological.

In France, despite general anger against the government, it seemed fair that a man who was respected for his serious low-key approach should go to Brussels, where he was elected President of the European Commission in 1985. With the Commission post adding to his reputation, Mr Delors has been constantly cited as a presidential possible, as a man who could be the next Socialist candidate when Mr Mitterrand leaves office in May 1995.

These chances seemed dashed a year ago when Michel Rocard, the former prime minister, was dubbed the 'virtual candidate' of the Socialist Party. But, defeated last Sunday in the parliamentary constituency that he had held for 16 years, Mr Rocard's hopes of a comeback in time for a campaign that will effectively be under way next year look slim. Mr Rocard and Pierre Mauroy, the prime minister from 1981 to 1984, have called for a special party congress in July to try to put the Socialists back on track.

It could therefore be the time for Mr Delors to make a comeback. Does he, however, have the stuff of a presidential candidate and can he turn around the anti-Socialist atmosphere which led to the Socialists losing 200 parliamentary seats last month?

The answer is probably 'no'. Although he enjoys great personal popularity in opinion polls, so did the centrist Raymond Barre, prime minister from 1976 to 1981, throughout the 1980s. This popularity did not translate into an election victory when Mr Barre, who was eliminated in the first round of voting, stood for the presidency in 1988. In many ways, the two men have a similar businesslike image in the public mind. This makes them ideal candidates for a public role, but somehow does not fire the public's imagination when the top job is at stake.

The memory of the years when Mr Delors ran the economy is much fresher in France than were the 1970s to British voters who swung back to the Conservatives a year ago when reminded of Labour austerity. The economy's record under Mr Delors would be a gift to his opponents.

Mr Delors will be 70 in two years' time and it could be, with President Mitterrand bowing out at the age of 78, that the age of the next head of state will be an election issue.

The most likely conservative candidates will be Jacques Chirac, the Gaullist leader, and Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former centre-right president. Already some pundits are predicting that the second and final round of voting might see two conservatives and no one from the left fighting for the Elysee Palace.

In opinion polls, admittedly under the influence of the wave which brought the conservatives back into power, both Mr Chirac and Mr Giscard d'Estaing are ahead of either Socialist challenger. Both would be fighting their third presidential election campaign. Mr Delors has never fought a national election, although he has campaigned for others. The only time he went on the hustings for himself was to become mayor of the Paris suburb of Clichy in 1983.

Conor Cruise O'Brien, page 20