Gaullists pin hopes on Juppe rejects

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The Independent Online
The unpopularity of the French government is such that President Jacques Chirac is considering the formation of a new centre-right alliance as the only chance of retaining a parliamentary majority after the 1998 elections. Such an alliance would effectively bypass the structures of the Gaullist RPR party and its coalition partner, the UDF, both of which are closely associated with the government of Alain Juppe.

The idea, which has echoes of Georges Pompidou's tactics in the approach to the 1973 parliamentary elections, has been discussed at meetings of leading politicians and broached indirectly in recent press commentaries. The reasoning is that a grouping headed personally by Mr Chirac could embrace popular figures such as the former prime minister Edouard Balladur, the former interior minister Charles Pasqua, and the former economy minister Alain Madelin, to help front the campaign.

All three win consistently high points in opinion polls, but are cold- shouldered by the hierarchies of the RPR and UDF and have no place in Mr Juppe's government. A fourth "dissenter" whose support is being solicited is Philippe Seguin, the anti-Maastricht maverick who remains hugely popular despite being politically neutralised as the chairman of parliament.

None of the four has made any secret of their political differences with Mr Juppe, which are as personal as they are political. A recent breakfast meeting between Mr Juppe and Mr Pasqua lasted 15 minutes, barely long enough, one observer said, for them to down an espresso. A lunch meeting between Mr Juppe and Mr Balladur lasted longer, but ended with a smiling Mr Juppe saying that there was broad agreement, and a stony-faced Mr Balladur leaving in silence.

Both Mr Balladur and Mr Pasqua were left out of Mr Juppe's government after they lined up against Mr Chirac in last year's presidential campaign. Mr Madelin was sacked a year ago for advocating just the sort of tax-cutting policies that are now proposed. Until now, the influence of the "dissenters" has been limited by their inability to agree a common platform against Mr Juppe. They have spent much time sniping at the failure of government policies, especially to reduce unemployment. And although they have recently started to meet in public - Mr Seguin lunched last week with Mr Balladur and Mr Pasqua shared a platform at the weekend with Mr Madelin - policy differences remain.

What the four have most in common, aside from their dislike of Mr Juppe, is loyalty to Mr Chirac, and it is this that could be mobilised in the cause of retrieving the parliamentary elections for the centre-right.

Although legislative elections are more than a year away - they are due in spring 1998 - the RPR/UDF coalition is already fearful on two counts. It is worried that the 80 per cent parliamentary majority it won in 1993 could be overturned by the left.

It also fears that a strong showing by the National Front could leave the extreme-right party with the balance of votes in a hung parliament.

Both these dangers were illustrated last weekend, when the Minister for Francophone Affairs, Margie Sudre, was soundly beaten in a by-election, and the National Front performed strongly in two local elections.

A "presidential" alliance would enable the centre-right to enter the elections on the back of Mr Chirac's personal popularity, harness popular "dissenters" to the campaign, and allow Mr Juppe to remain in office until the elections to carry out the "necessary, but disliked" reforms.

The disadvantage for Mr Chirac is that it would draw him back into a party-political fray that he has eschewed since taking office, regarding it as the President's job to represent "all the French". For Mr Juppe, the disadvantage is even greater, which is why he is, very discreetly, opposing the idea. Not only would it leave him to take responsibility for government failures, but it would inevitably dent his authority as leader of the Gaullist party, the reserve power base he had planned for his post-prime ministerial existence.