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France expects as Delors' hat hovers above the ring

AUGUST has been a busy month for Jacques Delors who, at 69, pretends he is going nowhere. First, he invited the political editors of French news weeklies to his country house. Lengthy profiles followed. The left-wing Le Nouvel Observateur's cover carried a montage of Mr Delors wearing the insignia of president of the republic.

As the magazines appeared last weekend, the outgoing president of the European Commission held a well-publicised meeting with his supporters, the young hopefuls of the opposition Socialist Party.

Some saw this as the start of Mr Delors's campaign to succeed Francois Mitterrand when the Socialist President's mandate ends next May. Virtually the only person not saying so was Mr Delors himself. 'It doesn't concern you,' he told journalists at the meeting of his Club Temoin in the Breton city of Lorient. On another occasion, he said the prospect of retirement when he leaves Brussels at the end of this year did not frighten him.

Mr Delors has for long been mooted as a potential successor to Mr Mitterrand but he has consistently refused to be drawn. However, it seems clear now that he has positioned himself as a candidate while taking care to do so in the most face-saving way possible, holding himself back until the last moment and standing only if victory is within his reach.

His tactics resemble those of Edouard Balladur, the Gaullist Prime Minister who, while never saying he will be a candidate for the Elysee Palace, has left few in doubt that he is preparing to stand. If Mr Balladur stands, it will queer the pitch for Jacques Chirac, head of the Gaullist RPR party. Mr Balladur, with 63 per cent in the Journal du Dimanche's 'barometre' of his popularity this week, has never had it so good. Only if his popularity slipped badly would he be unwise to go for the Elysee.

It is perhaps only if Mr Balladur drops out that Mr Delors, then probably facing Mr Chirac, will want to stand. Popular across party lines, Mr Delors even has the favour of 56 per cent of the centre- right Union for French Democracy (UDF), the Gaullists' government coalition partners, according to the Sofres polling institute. While most polls give the right victory next May no matter what, a few have shown Mr Delors defeating Mr Chirac or giving him a close fight.

Mr Delors' main problem is lack of campaigning experience. The only election he fought was to be mayor of Clichy in the Paris suburbs 11 years ago. What commentators call his 'didactic' approach, however, makes him good on television. To exploit this, Le Nouvel Observateur said he should delay announcing his candidature as late as possible before the first round of voting on 23 April.