The appeal to find a joint candidate came from Gerard Longuet, of the Union for French Democracy (UDF), in response to speculation that President Francois Mitterrand may step down soon. Speculation intensified with the narrow approval in the French referendum on Sunday of ratification of the Maastricht treaty, which gives the President a victory with which to leave office. In the last two presidential elections the two conservative parties put up separate candidates in the first round of the two-round poll, easing the campaign of the Socialist Mr Mitterrand.
In theory, the RPR and the UDF have an agreement to hold a 'primary' to find the most acceptable joint candidate, but, given that this would almost certainly pit Mr Chirac against the former president, Valery Giscard d'Estaing, two bitter rivals, the parties have been reluctant to set the machinery in motion.
On Wednesday Mr Chirac was confirmed as RPR president by 95 per cent of the delegates who turned up. But 152 of the registered 667 delegates were absent after the two main campaigners for a 'no' vote in the Maastricht referendum, Philippe Seguin and Charles Pasqua, said they would not attend. They said they were not challenging Mr Chirac's leadership but thought the party should rather be looking for a new programme to satisfy grass-roots supporters. Mr Chirac campaigned in favour of Maastricht but two-thirds of Gaullists opposed approval of the treaty.
Despite the contradictions within the Gaullist movement, opinion polls tip Mr Chirac as the strongest candidate to win the presidency. Mr Longuet, the president of the Republican Party, one of the components of the UDF, said in Le Figaro yesterday that the opposition had to 'anticipate the next steps'.
One way was to unite the two conservative groups behind 'the certainty of a single candidate . . . that is why it is necessary to accelerate the mechanism of primaries . . . to show that the right can overcome personal divisions'. This, Mr Longuet added, was the only way to avert 'dispersion, division and failure'.
On the left, the Socialist Party leadership, whose supporters overwhelmingly favoured Maastricht, threatened its main anti- Maastricht dissident, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, the former defence minister, with de-selection as a parliamentary candidate in the next general elections.
Le Figaro said Pierre Beregovoy, the Prime Minister, was increasingly favoured within the Socialist Party as a possible successor to Mr Mitterrand. Until now, Michel Rocard, who was prime minister for three years, had been considered the most likely candidate. But opinion polls indicating that Mr Rocard would be defeated by Mr Chirac or Mr Giscard d'Estaing prompted Socialist leaders to look for an alternative and Mr Beregovoy was the current favourite, the paper said.