Landslide victory for `French Thatcher'

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MICHELE ALLIOT-MARIE, 53, was elected head of France's neo-Gaullist RPR Party by a landslide at the weekend, to become the first woman to lead a major political party.

She is not seen as a deep political thinker, has no significant track record in government and triumphed through the lack of credible opposition. But it would be foolish to underestimate her - similar slighting remarks were made about Margaret Thatcher when she took over the leadership of the Conservative Party in 1975.

"Michele is not the Danube of political thought, but she does have balls," a colleague told the newspaper Liberation.

It remains to be seen whether Ms Alliot-Marie - nickname "Mam" - will become the Iron Lady of French politics. She already represents a refreshing change from stultifying tradition. She is not a "woman politician", but a politician who happens to be a woman, in a party and a country where women have mostly been kept on the margins of political life.

She has also broken themould of French politics in that she is not, like many French party leaders, a self-appointed, and self-important, political baron in search of an electorate. She has been democratically chosen by the grass roots - against the wishes of the party's founder, President Jacques Chirac, and against the expectations of the Paris political and media establishment.

As leader of the Gaullists, she stands in a line which comes down from Charles de Gaulle, through Georges Pompidou, Jacques Chirac, Edouard Balladur and Alain Juppe - presidents or prime ministers all.

If President Chirac is re-elected in 2002, Ms Alliot-Marie could become Prime Minister. Her election as head of the RPR is, however, a stinging rebuff to the President from his supporters. Mr Chirac had unofficially but clearly favoured the choice of Jean-Paul Delevoye, a weak and malleable provincial politician.

Ms Alliot-Marie took 62.7 per cent of the vote in the second round of the election on Saturday. She is mayor of the town of St Jean-de-Luz in the Pyrenees, and is a former junior minister, with doctorates in law and politics. She married her law professor at 24 but divorced him 25 years later, after he refused to have children. She never remarried but plunged into busy and, until now, mostly anonymous political activity. In the Juppe government from 1995 to 1997, she held the position of sports minister.

She appealed to RPR members because she was a straight talker, but also because she was neither Mr Chirac's candidate nor associated with any of the party's many war-ring factions.

After her victory, Ms Alliot-Marie immediately promised to unite the party: the pro and anti-Europeans, the pro-market modernisers and the pro-state traditionalists, the Catholic conservatives, and the blue-collar reactionaries. She also plans to streamline the bureaucracy of the party and make it more responsive to its members.

So far so good for Mr Chirac. But she has also promised to take a much more aggressive line with the Socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin, with whom Mr Chirac has been forced to "co-habit" since 1997. This will delight party activists but is less good news for the President. His high rating in the opinion polls is dependent on the boom of the last two years and widespread public approval of the political "truce" which has coincided with it.

Mr Chirac acknowledged yesterday that Ms Alliot-Marie had made political history. He said: "I am sure that with her new team she will be able to put all her energy into the Gaullist movement in the service of the people of France."

His congratulations were a marked departure from his earlier attitude to Ms Alliot-Marie. In 1995 she gained notoriety for trying to keep a foot in both the Chirac and Balladur camps when the two RPR heavyweights were slugging it out for the presidential nomination. Mr Chirac dismissed her as "poor little Michele" after she tried to reconcile him and Mr Balladur and he kept her out of government after taking power.