French opposition searches right and left for partners

Former RPR minister wants 'understanding' with Le Pen. Joanna Lee reports

Shaken and demoralised by the electoral defeat of 1 June, the French Right are struggling to come up with a new strategy that will put them back in the running for government.

The debate over the merging of the two main right-wing parties has been reopened, as is often the case in moments of crisis. The Gaullist mayor and MP for Vallence, Patrick Labaune, has suggested that his town should be used for a pilot project for the amalgamation of the neo-Gaullist Rassemblement pour La Republique (RPR) and the centre-right Union pour la Democratie Francaise (UDF). His proposal has caused a flurry of debate within both parties, which has served to demonstrate more than ever the divisions within the ranks of the opposition. Five MPs, including the former Defence Minister, Charles Millon (UDF) have come out in support of the project. In an interview with Le Figaro last Saturday Mr Millon stated: "The opponents of this fusion can only find tactical or personal arguments to oppose it ... if they don't like it, well, they should change parties, go and join the Socialists."

The spokesman for the UDF, Pierre-Andre Wiltzer, believes that the possibility of closer union "merits an organised debate, open to all concerned", but that this does not necessarily mean a merger. Nicolas Sarkozy, the RPR spokesman, believes that priorities lie elsewhere: "It is not by joining two weak organisations that you create a strong one ... first we must rejuvenate the RPR and reform its political plans."

In an interview in yesterday's Le Figaro, the general secretary of the UDF, Claude Goasguen, explained: "Fusion would not solve internal problems and there are still essential differences between the parties on areas such as decentralisation and Europe."

The UDF favours decentralisation and is very pro-European, whereas the RPR is less enthusiastic about decentralisation, and although officially pro-European, does have reservations in this direction, particularly towards federalism. These are the main areas of contention between the two parties, which are otherwise essentially fairly close. There is however a difference in the nature of the two parties which is likely to render amalgamation difficult. The RPR was founded by General De Gaulle in 1958 as the main right-wing party, and modernised and renamed by Jacques Chirac in 1976. The UDF is a union rather than a party, of all non-Gaullist right-wing parties, created to support the former French President Valery Giscard d'Estaing in 1978.

A darker, more desperate proposal is also floating around the offices of the opposition at the moment: that there should be co-operation with Jean Marie Le Pen's National Front. His party won 15 per cent of the votes in the first round of the recent general election, which had a catastrophic effect for the RPR and UDF.

A former RPR minister, Alain Peyrefritte, and former UDF MP Robert Pandraud have both asked for an "understanding" with the National Front. Mr Goasguen has requested that his party stop "demonising the National Front" and indulge in "serene and constructive thought" with them.

This possibility has been rejected by the president of the RPR, Philippe Seguin, and a spokesman for the RPR said yesterday that any alliance with the National Front was "out of the question".

A spokesman for the National Front said that it seemed "unlikely for the moment because the Right prefer stupidly to lose elections rather than ally with the National Front".

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