Legal scandal could prompt early French election

At first it was just idle political chatter, "between coffee and croissant" as Le Monde put it. But the possibility of an early French general election has now lodged firmly on the political radar screens of the leading parties and on the front pages of the newspapers.

The gossip in the corridors of the National Assembly is that President Jacques Chirac may dissolve parliament next month and call an election in early June - nine months earlier than the constitution demands.

The chatter became so insistent this week that the Prime Minister's parliamentary adviser, Eric Woerth, strode up to a group of government deputies on Wednesday and told them to shut their mouths about early elections in public. "This is not a good debate," he said.

According to the office of the Prime Minister, Alain Juppe, it is a rumour which has no "objective" basis. There has been no "reflection" on the topic whatsoever. And yet ministers who have spoken to Mr Juppe in recent days tell the press that the possibility is in his mind.

It is Mr Chirac who is, according to Le Monde, the main stumbling block to an early election. Mr Juppe is said to be broadly in favour. But that was before new opinion polls yesterday showed a down-turn in the popularity of both men, which had been recovering steadily since the New Year.

The arguments for an early poll are six-fold. An election next spring would fall in the middle of the final approach to decisions on the European single currency. If there is a vicious Euro-battle about whether France qualifies, and on what terms, it could split the centre-right parties of the present majority in mid-campaign. Secondly, the economy is looking slightly better but is unlikely to improve dramatically this year. Thirdly, the majority parties are in good shape to fight an early election, but the opposition parties are not. A snap poll could de-rail the Socialists, who are struggling to put together a coherent programme, and the far- right National Front, which lacks the resources to change gears for an early campaign.

Fourthly, several recent studies suggest that the centre-right would win a majority if elections were held in the next few weeks. Fifthly, a new centre-right five-year mandate in parliament from this June would coincide exactly with the remainder of President Chirac's presidential term, giving new impetus to carry out his economic and institutional reforms. Sixthly, but by no means least importantly, the legal net is beginning to close around senior government figures suspected of involvement in illegal party funding.

Against these persuasive arguments, President Chirac is said to have two main objections. The opinion poll evidence is not conclusive; early elections would be a great risk. Secondly, snap elections for tactical reasons are disliked by French voters. Of all the arguments in favour, those which might most easily overcome the President's scruples are the legal ones. The newspaper Le Parisien yesterday published new evidence linking two senior ministers - Jean Arthuis (finance) and Jacque Barrot (employment) - to a Swiss bank account controlling illegal funding by big business of their small centrist party, the Social Democrats, in the 1980s and early 1990s. Le Canard Enchaine has already said that the two men will shortly be placed under formal investigation. Le Parisien said yesterday that that will happen before the summer.

With several senior figures in their own RPR (neo-Gaullist) party facing similar problems, such a development would be deeply embarrassing for both President Chirac and Mr Juppe. A new mandate from an early poll would help them to glide over the problems: and give an opportunity to create a new government team without the legally-challenged ministers.

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