The dispute could be the beginning of the 'political recomposition' - a re-drawing of the French political landscape - which many predicted would follow Sunday's Maastricht referendum. This could produce new alliances and bring forward a new generation of leaders.
The meeting, planned to end late last night with a vote of confidence in Jacques Chirac, the president of the RPR (Rally for the Republic), was thrown into disarray when Philippe Seguin and Charles Pasqua, both former ministers who led the anti-Maastricht faction, said they would not attend. They said they had taken their decision with the support of other MPs who had campaigned to reject Maastricht.
Although they narrowly lost the battle to reject ratification of the European Union treaty in the national referendum, the strength of Mr Seguin and Mr Pasqua lies in the fact that they immediately attracted one-third of RPR MPs, including some historical stars of Gaullism, to their camp. This grew to just over half by Sunday; polls showed that two-thirds of RPR grass-roots supporters were on their side.
Since Sunday, Mr Seguin, 49, has been ebullient. On Monday, lunching on a terrace near the Champs-Elysees, his presence attracted a crowd. 'It turned into a political meeting,' said a witness. 'Seguin was on terrific form.'
In a statement, the two 'no' campaigners cut the ground from under the established Gaullist leadership without mounting a direct challenge. Damning Mr Chirac with faint support, they said the problem facing the RPR was not the legitimacy of his leadership 'but to set down a political line corresponding to the expectations of the French'. For this reason, 'we considered it useless to take part in the meeting called by the RPR leadership'.
An opinion poll taken on Sunday showed that Mr Chirac was the strongest-placed national figure to become president if Francois Mitterrand were to step down. The poll gave him 53 per cent against 47 per cent for Michel Rocard, the most likely Socialist candidate.
Mr Seguin and Mr Pasqua had promised to wind up their 'Rally for the No' anti-Maastricht group at midnight on Sunday to heal the breach with the rest of the RPR. The two men were first involved in a challenge to Mr Chirac's leadership nearly three years ago.
Over the summer, a leader of the centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF), which is in a loose coalition with the RPR, said privately that he believed Mr Seguin and Mr Pasqua were conducting a putsch to return the party to traditional Gaullist bases. Mr Chirac is seen as having intellectualised a populist movement. Other supporters in the anti-Maastricht campaign were Michel Debre and Maurice Couve de Murville, both prime ministers under Charles de Gaulle.Reuse content