Tongues wag as French minister quits to run for mayor of Lille

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The Independent Online

Martine Aubry, the French Employment and Health Minister and number two in the government, will resign today to run for the mayorship of Lille.

Martine Aubry, the French Employment and Health Minister and number two in the government, will resign today to run for the mayorship of Lille.

That, at least, is the official reason for her departure, which has been carefully trailed for months in advance. The real reasons for her leaving - the latest in a series of resignations that has weakened Lionel Jospin's government - are more mysterious and complex.

Ms Aubry, 50, the daughter of the former European Commission president, Jacques Delors, has pushed through the reduction of the working week to 35 hours and established an ambitious job creation programme for young people.

She told the women's magazine Elle this week that she was stepping down from her ministerial job to "spend more time with the man I love". She was referring to her husband, Xavier Aubry, a senior accountant, who has rarely appeared in her political career until now.

Since Ms Aubry is fiercely ambitious and a rising force in French politics, no one took that explanation very seriously. "Suddenly we learn that the austere Martine is going to recapture her love life in Lille," the newspaper Le Parisien commented acidly yesterday.

Since the city of Lille has been controlled by the left for more than 50 years, the rigours of the municipal campaign trail are hardly a more plausible reason for her resignation.

The fact that she gave an interview to Elle - with another large personality feature on Ms Aubry due to be published by Paris Match tomorrow - suggests another explanation to political commentators and gossip-mongers.

Ms Aubry, who is regarded as one of the successes of the Jospin government, wants to create her own power basewithin the Socialist party and within the wider French electorate. She hopes to bounce back into national politics, as prime minister on her own terms if Mr Jospin wins the presidential election in 2002 or as leader of the Socialists if he loses.

Ms Aubry's successor as "Minister for solidarity" and number two in the Jospin administration will almost certainly be her great rival and one-time friend, Elisabeth Guigou, the Justice Minister. Ms Guigou, 54, would be one of Ms Aubry's main rivals for the job of either prime minister or new socialist leader, depending on the result of the 2002 presidential election.

The new Justice Minister is likely to be Jean-Louis Blanco, former head of President François Mitterrand's private office but a forgotten man in the Jospin years. This tells its own story. Mr Jospin originally tried to exclude colleagues who were too closely associated with Mitterrand. Having, for various reasons, lost 10 of his 26 original ministers in just over three years, he has been forced in recent months to broaden the base of his administration.