Juppe struggles to unite cabinet after sacking minister

MARY DEJEVSKY

Paris

The French Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, spent the weekend trying to prevent an embarrassing dispute about economic policy breaking out in the ranks of his three-month-old government, following his decision on Friday to dismiss the economics minister, Alain Madelin.

The departure of Mr Madelin, number three in the ministerial hierarchy, prompted a fall in the value of the franc and statements of regret from several senior politicians, including the Foreign Minister, Herve de Charette.

Speaking at a gathering of the small centre-right Radical Party in Antibes, Mr Juppe sounded a distinctly defensive note, quite unlike the airy allusions to "team spirit" he had made on Friday. "France," he said, "can be sure that there is a captain on the plane of government." A government, he said, was not a "debating society where everyone can play his own tune. It has a score and a conductor".

Mr Juppe's emphasis on unity and direction seemed directed particularly at those such as Mr de Charette, and Francois Leotard, the former defence minister, who had lamented the removal of Mr Madelin.

Mr de Charette had issued a particularly strong statement, saying that Mr Madelin's "acute intelligence and freedom of spirit" would be sorely missed in the government, and he promised to voice "those views we have in common".

Mr Madelin resigned on Friday evening at the insistence of Mr Juppe, after public-sector unions and employees raised a storm of protest about a radio interview in which he questioned arrangements for public- sector compared with private- sector employees, and the "benefits trap" which left some families better off on social security than working for the minimum wage.

Mr Juppe said that "combating privileges was not to be confused with attacking the social gains people had made". Mr Madelin, who has never concealed his Thatcherite views on such matters, said that "he was surprised people had been surprised" by his words.

President Jacques Chirac, for whom the creation of jobs and the preservation of social cohesion has become a much clearer single priority than it was during his election campaign, was reported to have supported Mr Juppe's decision. But he remained out of the fray at the weekend and invited Mr Madelin - one of his staunchest supporters and policy-advisers during the election campaign - to meet him at the Elysee.

Meanwhile Jean Arthuis, Mr Madelin's successor at the economics ministry, tried to smooth troubled waters, insisting - as Mr Juppe had initially tried to do - that the differences leading to Mr Madelin's departure related to style and method, not to substance.

But Mr Arthuis, the former minister for economic development and planning, who is regarded as more centrist and more diplomatic than Mr Madelin, looked and sounded uneasy with his task.

In a series of press and television interviews, he tried to do three things at the same time: to maintain a facade of government unity by praising Mr Madelin; to reassure the markets by insisting on the need to cut the domestic budget deficit; to placate France's huge public sector by stressing that there would be no claims on their social provisions and there would be a concerted effort to combat unemployment.

It was combining these last two aims that Mr Madelin found so difficult, and which ultimately led to his dismissal.

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