Leotard looks set to survive corruption allegation

A PROSECUTOR has recommended that corruption charges against Francois Leotard, one of the most promising younger generation of French politicians, be dropped. The Lyons prosecutor looking into Mr Leotard's role in awarding a building tender in the port of Frejus, where he was mayor until charges were laid last June, told the city's appeal court on Monday that there was no case. The court will rule on 19 January.

If Mr Leotard, 50, a leader of the centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF) who is a likely future presidential candidate, is cleared, he will have a clean slate before National Assembly elections on 21 March. The elections are virtually certain to bring a conservative government to power, heralding a second 'cohabitation', a right-wing cabinet under the Socialist President, Francois Mitterrand. Mr Leotard made it plain earlier this month that he was a candidate for prime minister.

Edouard Balladur, of the Gaullist RPR party and the Finance Minister under the original 1986-88 'cohabitation', is the most favoured prime ministerial candidate. Mr Leotard has been tipped as foreign minister under Mr Balladur.

The allegation against Mr Leotard focused on the 1986 purchase for 1.2m francs ( pounds 145,000) of a house which he had previously rented. The vendor had bought the property some years before for nearly six times that price. Mr Leotard's defence was that he had carried out work on the house and had not bought all the original land. He agreed to pay additional tax on the purchase. Then it emerged that the vendor, Henri Meyer, had won a tender from Frejus municipality to build a yacht harbour. Rene Espanol, an unsuccessful bidder for the contract, filed the complaint which led to the charges.

News that Mr Leotard may be cleared came just after the entrepreneur Bernard Tapie was reinstated to his post of Minister for Towns following the dropping of a charge against him inspired by a complaint from a former business associate.

Both Mr Tapie and Mr Leotard, although his age technically disqualifies him, are so-called 'quadras', the 'fortysomethings' regarded as the new hope of French politics. With Mr Mitterrand, 76, coming up to retirement at the end of his term in 1995 and the right bogged down in an 18-year feud between Valery Giscard d'Estaing, the former president and UDF leader, and the Gaullist leader, Jacques Chirac, the 'quadras' are seen as more in tune with the nation than their elders.

Other well-placed 'quadras' are Philippe Seguin of the RPR who campaigned against the Maastricht treaty, the ecologist Brice Lalonde and Bernard Kouchner, the Health and Humanitarian Action Minister. Two others, Michel Noir, the centre-right mayor of Lyons, and Laurent Fabius, the Socialist Party first secretary and former prime minister, are in trouble. Mr Noir's son-in-law is in custody for alleged fraud, a scandal which has tarnished the mayor's reputation. Mr Fabius took some hard knocks this month as he wavered over whether to go before the High Court with two of his former ministers in France's HIV-tainted blood scandal.

Mr Seguin, despite being at odds with the RPR leadership over Maastricht, has been appointed one of the party's policy- making 'mammoths' and now accompanies Mr Chirac to public appearances. Mr Lalonde, whose Generation Ecologie is allied with the rival Greens party for the March elections, looks set to take a chunk of the Socialist vote. Mr Kouchner, a founder of the charity Medecins Sans Frontieres, is, according to one poll, the most popular French politician of 1992.

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