French right ready to elect its first woman leader

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The Independent Online
JACQUES CHIRAC lost ground on two fronts in the battle for the tattered standard of Gaullism at the weekend.

The French President failed to persuade members of the RPR, the neo-Gaullist party he founded 23 years ago, to vote in large numbers for his tame and widely mocked candidate for the party leadership. In the second round of the election on 4 December, the party presidency is likely to go to the runner-up, Michele Alliot-Marie, who would be the first woman to lead a big French political party.

In a further threat to Mr Chirac's political base, the former RPR baron, Charles Pasqua, officially launched a new "Gaullist" party, the Rassemblement pour la France (RPF), in Paris yesterday. The party - an uneasy blend of anti-Europeans, sovereigntists and right-wing traditionalists - is eroding RPR support, by claiming to be the true, patriotic defender of the values of "Le General".

In the first election for the presidency of the RPR, Mr Chirac's unofficial "official" candidate, Jean-Paul Delevoye (the "Bill Clinton of the Pas de Calais"), topped the poll in the first round on Saturday with 35 per cent of the vote. That was far below the President's hopes and expectations. It left the runner-up, Ms Alliot-Marie, a former sports minister who took 31 per cent of the vote, in a strong position to win the party presidency in two weeks.

The 53-year-old deputy from south-western France is also centre-right and close to Mr Chirac but much more pro-Europe than Mr Delevoye. She is popular with rank-and-file members.

The defeated candidates, with 33 per cent between them, are expected to endorse Ms Alliot-Marie, who ran as the candidate of the grassroots, common-sense and provincial values against Parisian arrogance. Though she declared herself a Chirac loyalist, her success amounted to a revolt by party members and workers against the one-man domination of a party beset by electoral failure, internal quarrels and allegations of corrupt fund-raising and vote rigging.

The RPR has been without a president for seven months. Its membership is in free-fall: down to 65,000, compared with 151,000 when Mr Chirac was elected President in 1995. Its relations with the rest of the splintered French centre-right are in tumult.

The RPR was founded as a patriotic, conservative party, suspicious of Brussels but supportive of the central, and bureaucratic, power of the French state. Part of its Paris leadership has drifted towards a more liberal, pro-market and pro-European position. Mr Chirac has vacillated between the two, according to what he presumed was his electoral advantage.

Many of the party's Eurosceptic members have left to join Charles Pasqua, another RPR founder, who launched his own movement with the far-right Catholic traditionalist nobleman, Philippe de Villiers, before the European elections in June. The RPF has internal tensions but already claims 25,000 members.

The democratic election of a new RPR president was supposed to begin the process of healing the party's wounds. Mr Chirac (without officially backing anyone) made clear his anointed choice was 52-year-old Mr Delevoye, the mayor of Bapaume near Lille. A tall, handsome, bouffon-haired local politician, Mr Delevoye has limited ideas and ability. The "Bill Clinton" nickname is ironic. Mr Delevoye is an American sort of politician running for the leadership of a rather anti-American party.

And he has turned out to be a man with a hundred glib phrases but no evident thought patterns, a lobotomised version of Mr Clinton. To be leader of the RPR is to have pretensions to stand in a line that descends from Charles de Gaulle, through Georges Pompidou, Jacques Chirac, Edouard Balladur and Alain Juppe, presidents and prime ministers all. President Chirac's unlikely selection of Mr Delevoye was an arrogant and selfish choice.

Two of the past three RPR leaders have attempted to wrest control of the party from Mr Chirac. The President was telling the party members they had to give him someone he could push around, someone who would not try to place conditions on his attempt to retain the presidency in 2002.

Mr Chirac misread the mood of what remains of his party. Instead of the cheerfully dunderheaded Mr Delevoye, the membership looks likely to give the President Ms Alliot-Marie. She is a brisk, intelligent woman, with a mind - and now a power base - of her own.

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