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France and US lock horns over selection of UN chief

The game-plan of France was the single focus of attention at the UN yesterday, as members of the Security Council sought to navigate through the maze of diplomatic bluffs, double-bluffs and triple-bluffs in the game of identifying the next UN Secretary General.

Further rounds of secret voting in the council yesterday confirmed Kofi Annan, the Under-Secretary General for Peacekeeping from Ghana, as the front-runner to replace Boutros Boutros Ghali whose term expires at the end of December. Critically, however, the straw-poll voting showed opposition to Mr Annan from one of the council's permanent five - widely assumed to be France.

France has been a supporter of a second term for Mr Boutros Ghali, whose candidature was vetoed by the United States three weeks ago. Most observers believe France is respond-ing to the American veto by exercising its equal right to veto Mr Annan. Mr Annan is backed by the US. Britain appears to support him, though with less obvious enthusiasm.

Additional voting rounds were expected this week to assess the solidity of the French position. Supporters of Mr Annan are crossing fingers that Paris, once it has made its point to the US, can be persuaded to back down and allow his selection.

Consistent opposition by France to Mr Annan could kill his candidacy, however. There are three other new candidates from Africa, which, by unwritten convention, can expect to have one of their own in the Secretary General's office for the next five years. But so far none have attracted sufficient support to be electable. His closest rival is Amara Essy, the Foreign Minister of Ivory Coast. He got six votes in his favour yesterday, against 11 for Mr Annan.

It is far from clear whether France's objections to Mr Annan are anything but political. An urbane, popular figure, he has dedicated his life to the organisation and at 58 is seen as a competent, if unexciting, candidate for its most senior position. "This is about France's political pique with the United States," one diplomat said. "I don't think the French have anything to say about Annan in terms of his qualifications, they just want to tell the Americans, `We can play that game too' ".