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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
Life and Style
love + sex
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Sport
Ashley Young celebrates the winner for Manchester United against Newcastle
footballNewcastle 0 Man United 1: Last minute strike seals precious victory
Life and Style
Tikka Masala has been overtaken by Jalfrezi as the nation's most popular curry
food + drink
Arts and Entertainment
Seth Rogan is one of America’s most famous pot smokers
filmAmy Pascal resigned after her personal emails were leaked following a cyber-attack sparked by the actor's film The Interview
News
Benjamin Netanyahu and his cartoon bomb – the Israeli PM shows his ‘evidence’
people
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
News
i100
Life and Style
A statue of the Flemish geographer Gerard Kremer, Geradus Mercator (1512 - 1594) which was unveiled at the Geographical Congree at Anvers. He was the first person to use the word atlas to describe a book of maps.
techThe 16th century cartographer created the atlas
Arts and Entertainment
Stephen Tompkinson is back as DCI Banks
tvReview: Episode one of the new series played it safe, but at least this drama has a winning formula
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: UI / UX Designer

£25000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This firm are focussed on assis...

Recruitment Genius: General Processor

£7 per hour: Recruitment Genius: A vacancy has arisen for a General Processor ...

Recruitment Genius: Outbound Sales Executive - B2B

£18000 - £22000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A great opportunity has arisen ...

Recruitment Genius: Online Sales and Customer Services Associate

£14000 - £16000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Full time and Part time positio...

Day In a Page

War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable
Living with Alzheimer's: What is it really like to be diagnosed with early-onset dementia?

What is it like to live with Alzheimer's?

Depicting early-onset Alzheimer's, the film 'Still Alice' had a profound effect on Joy Watson, who lives with the illness. She tells Kate Hilpern how she's coped with the diagnosis
The Internet of Things: Meet the British salesman who gave real-world items a virtual life

Setting in motion the Internet of Things

British salesman Kevin Ashton gave real-world items a virtual life
Election 2015: Latest polling reveals Tories and Labour on course to win the same number of seats - with the SNP holding the balance of power

Election 2015: A dead heat between Mr Bean and Dick Dastardly!

Lord Ashcroft reveals latest polling – and which character voters associate with each leader
Audiences queue up for 'true stories told live' as cult competition The Moth goes global

Cult competition The Moth goes global

The non-profit 'slam storytelling' competition was founded in 1997 by the novelist George Dawes Green and has seen Malcolm Gladwell, Salman Rushdie and Molly Ringwald all take their turn at the mic
Pakistani women come out fighting: A hard-hitting play focuses on female Muslim boxers

Pakistani women come out fighting

Hard-hitting new play 'No Guts, No Heart, No Glory' focuses on female Muslim boxers
Leonora Carrington transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star

Surreal deal: Leonora Carrington

The artist transcended her stolid background to become an avant garde star
LGBT History Month: Pupils discuss topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage

Education: LGBT History Month

Pupils have been discussing topics from Sappho to same-sex marriage
11 best gel eyeliners

Go bold this season: 11 best gel eyeliners

Use an ink pot eyeliner to go bold on the eyes with this season's feline flicked winged liner
Cricket World Cup 2015: Tournament runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

Cricket World Cup runs riot to make the event more hit than miss...

The tournament has reached its halfway mark and scores of 300 and amazing catches abound. One thing never changes, though – everyone loves beating England
Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Heptathlete ready to jump at first major title

Katarina Johnson-Thompson: Ready to jump at first major title

After her 2014 was ruined by injury, 21-year-old Briton is leading pentathlete going into this week’s European Indoors. Now she intends to turn form into gold
Syrian conflict is the world's first 'climate change war', say scientists, but it won't be the last one

Climate change key in Syrian conflict

And it will trigger more war in future
How I outwitted the Gestapo

How I outwitted the Gestapo

My life as a Jew in wartime Berlin
The nation's favourite animal revealed

The nation's favourite animal revealed

Women like cuddly creatures whilst men like creepy-crawlies
Is this the way to get young people to vote?

Getting young people to vote

From #VOTESELFISH to Bite the Ballot