Major and Juppe to share their problems over lunch

Of the many meetings, in friendship and enmity, between French and British leaders down the centuries, this will be one of the strangest.

Two much-abused Prime Ministers, John Major and Alain Juppe will meet for lunch in Downing Street today. Although both hope the worst is behind them, both men remain weak, in public opinion and within the ranks of their own nominal supporters. And yet both hope to draw strength from being seen with the other.

For Mr Major it is a chance to show that Labour is wrong to say relations between Britain and its European Union partners are at an unworkably low ebb.

For Alain Juppe - a successful foreign minister who became the least popular centre-right prime minister for nearly 40 years - it is a rare opportunity to leave domestic cares behind and appear respected and statesman- like abroad. Although the meeting has been planned since last November, it fits neatly into a tactical switch of roles between Mr Juppe and his patron and boss, President Jacques Chirac.

For long periods last year, President Chirac appeared to spend more time abroad than in France. For the five months up to December, he said barely a word on domestic issues. This year he has already let it be known that he will take over Mr Juppe's pole position as salesman of the extraordinary array of political, economic and social reforms started since he was elected in May 1995. This will also make him the spearhead of the centre-right campaign in the parliamentary elections in spring next year.

The reason for the switch is debatable. Some commentators argue that the President has despaired of Mr Juppe's ability to connect with an almost psychotically depressed French public or to hold together the factions within their own RPR (Gaullist) party, never mind the broader centre-right coalition. And yet Mr Chirac is unwilling to sack him, because the alternative candidates for prime minister are either too appalling or too appealing (and therefore outside his control).

Others argue that Mr Chirac has seen signs of a brightening horizon - unemployment down slightly; business confidence up; growth lifting on the back of strong French exports. He wants to move into the domestic front-row in time to take the credit. Either way, Mr Chirac cannot resist an election or a political scrap. It was unlikely that he would remain, Mitterrand-like, aloof in the Elysee palace for long.

All of this points to the unhappy condition of prime ministers under the constitution of the Fifth Republic. Mr Chirac left Mr Juppe exposed as the point man for France's most ambitious, and inevitably unpopular reforms in 40 years: a shift from dirigisme and employment protectionism to a freer market; abolition of the franc; rapprochement with Nato; abolition of national service; reform of education, health care, social security, the justice system ...

Mr Juppe has proved unable to persuade France to swallow this cornucopian menu. In part, this is because he is too much a product of the system he has been asked to change. Mr Juppe - intellectually brilliant, cold, cerebral, impatient with colleagues, although often loved by his underlings - is the epitome of the politico-bureaucratic aristocracy which believes itself destined to rule France.

Today's lunch in Downing Street will be followed by a series of meetings in the City, organised and hosted by Douglas Hurd, a close friend of Mr Juppe's from the time when they were both foreign ministers.

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