France discovers a favourite son: Balladur looks credible Mitterrand successor

THE Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, forecast last week that by the end of 1994, the French would consider him . . . the same as at the beginning.

Mr Balladur prides himself on predictability; and it would seem in his interest not to change. If he retains the popularity of his first nine months as Prime Minister, he will be the front-runner for the presidential elections in May next year.

His emergence as a presidential contender - a prospect on which he resolutely refuses to comment - has upset the applecart in his own Gaullist party. Jacques Chirac, the RPR president, had previously been the unchallenged, or 'natural' - as the French call it - candidate for the Gaullists.

Mr Chirac put himself on the sidelines after the right scored a big victory in last March's parliamentary elections, believing that the new government would soon be in trouble because of the recession. He wanted the freedom to sway with public opinion.

So far, however, the Balladur government has led a charmed life. Consistently high in the polls, the Prime Minister is seen as modest, truthful and competent. The successful conclusion of the Gatt international trade talks last month, after he took over an intransigent position that was not really to his liking, is seen as the most striking evidence of his abilities. The Financial Times made him the Man of the Year for 1993.

Setbacks such as the climbdown in the face of Air France strikers, who had paralysed air traffic in October, have been written off as exceptions that prove the rule.

One senior minister said the government, drawn from the RPR and the centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF), had held together because of Mr Balladur's management talents and because its members recognised the depth of crisis, from the domestic recession and the potential for conflict in Eastern Europe.

In addition, the minister said, Mr Balladur had set the French right on a new track. His businesslike approach had relegated into the background the two decades of rivalry between Mr Chirac and Valery Giscard d'Estaing (the former president and UDF founder) - one of the most tedious feuds in European politics.

He has been helped by the virtual absence of opposition. The Socialists, who had dominated the 1980s, were paralysed by their trouncing in March.

A further striking success has been the courtly Mr Balladur's handling of President Francois Mitterrand. In the previous left-right 'cohabitation' in 1986-88, when Mr Chirac ran the government under Mr Mitterrand's presidency, relations were explosive. Both men were manoeuvring for position in the 1988 presidential campaign.

Mr Mitterrand will retire when his second term ends in May next year. Given his rivalry with Michel Rocard, the likely Socialist candidate, and his dislike of Mr Chirac, a Balladur candidacy could be to the current President's liking.

But Mr Balladur's charmed life may be heading for a patch of turbulence. Last month, the government pushed through a controversial reform, abolishing the ceiling on funds that local authorities can give to private education.

This touched a French nerve, angering proponents of 'republican' values on left and right. Although the government argued that private schools, which have always received some state funding, needed more to improve safety, it was seen as support for religious schools in a country where state schools are strictly secular.

A package of aid to state establishments announced last week did nothing to calm tempers, and the supporters of state education plan a march through Paris next Sunday. If the turnout is big, it will be the first important public disavowal of Mr Balladur.

An indication of how Mr Balladur's rivals within the RPR may try to exploit his difficulties came when Philippe Seguin, the anti-Maastricht campaigner and president of the National Assembly, eulogised the secular tradition of French education in new year remarks to Mr Mitterrand last week. Mr Seguin is a supporter of Mr Chirac or, some say, a presidential contender himself.

Over the past year, Mr Balladur's 30-year friendship with Mr Chirac has been the subject of much examination by political commentators and satirists. A UDF minister said last week that in the past few weeks, their relations had 'unfortunately' deteriorated seriously.

On Friday, at one of his own new year receptions, Mr Balladur said he was asking ministers to stay out of the presidential battle until the end of 1994. And he promised to devote himself entirely to prime ministerial responsibilities.

With the Socialists (in the form of Mr Rocard and Laurent Fabius, former prime ministers for whom the school issue is a boon) going on the attack, Mr Balladur can also expect a rougher ride from the left.

It is a year in which la politique politicienne (politicians' politics), which French politicians all profess to despise, should thrive.

One who is likely to revel in it is Mr Mitterrand. Speaking to the press on Thursday, the 77- year-old head of state was in sparkling form. He said genetic engineering worried him because of the prospect of producing '17 identical examples of some of the people I (have to deal with)'.

He said he had to go to bed earlier these days; but this did not stop him keeping midnight appointments. 'Why not?' asked a female voice. 'If that's a personal offer, fine,' the President replied. 'If it's professional, I won't commit myself.'

Sixteen months before his retirement, he looks anything but a lame duck: more as if he is planning a few more mischievous swoops over the pond. He can be relied upon to promote his chosen successor - be it Mr Balladur, Mr Rocard or someone as yet unknown.

(Photograph omitted)

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