Juppe looks to foreign trips to polish his tarnished image

With his domestic popularity ratings stubbornly refusing to rise, Alain Juppe this week embarks on two official foreign visits, his first as French Prime Minister, and both to crucial and highly sensitive destinations for French foreign policy. Today he travels to Bonn for a meeting with Chancellor Helmut Kohl expected to concentrate on European issues, and on Wednesday he sets off for Moscow for two days of meetings with Russian officials.

Although planned several weeks ago - the Bonn trip was proposed after labour unrest in France forced Mr Juppe's absence from the Franco-German summit in December - the visits come at an opportune time.

The Bonn visit occurs amid some frank talking by many leading politicians in Europe, including France, about the feasibility of monetary union, whether by 1999 or at all. Mr Juppe set the tone for his meeting with the German Chancellor by telling a German newspaper that France would "do all it could" to keep to the timetable for monetary union.

"We keep our promises," he said. "We have set an objective and we will do all in our power to attain that objective." He described suggestions that the criteria for monetary union could be relaxed as "perverse" and the best way of "smothering" the idea of a single currency.

With peace in Bosnia under renewed threat and the political direction of Russia, following recent government changes, less certain than ever, the timing of the Moscow visit is equally fortunate.

But the visits are opportune also for Mr Juppe personally. They provide him with an opportunity to remind the French public of the international esteem he learnt during his two years as foreign minister and perhaps silence some of those who continue to question his political abilities, and even his suitability as prime minister.

In tacit acknowledgement of the prevailing public perception late last year that he was arrogant, technocratic, dogmatic and metropolitan when he tried to railroad through his welfare reform plan, Mr Juppe has tried hard to change his image.

After the climbdown represented by his agreement to the "social summit" with trade unions and employers' representatives before Christmas, he has markedly altered his posture and language. Whenever he appears, whether in person or on television, he has adopted a more hesitant, slightly deferential manner, with the occasional half-smile. His statements, formerly definite, curt and often in the first person, are now peppered with "we", "together", "consensus", "dialogue".

He has also been rushing around the country, in accordance with Mr Chirac's instructions to ministers to make themselves more visible in the provinces. While making appearances in Bordeaux (where he is mayor) most weekends, he has spent one or two days a week out of Paris introducing provincial employment initiatives, attending the scene of natural disasters (most recently the flood-stricken regions of the south). He even visited troops on an aircraft carrier in the Adriatic.

The problem for Mr Juppe is that, despite considerable effort on his part to lay the ghosts of the strikes and protests late last year, his popularity has barely increased. The latest poll showed only 33 per cent giving a positive assessment, slightly down on the previous month.