Pasqua's eloquent gestures say it all for Balladur

John Lichfield in Paris on the rehabilitation of top Gaullists called in to rescue the election campaign
Click to follow
Charles Pasqua, the 70-year-old bull elephant of the Gaullist RPR, is answering a mischievous question pitched to him by a German journalist. The answer lasts a minute or so; it does not contain a single word. Instead, Mr Pasqua's famously crumpled face goes through a gymnastic display of expressions - astonishment, puzzlement, uncertainty, anger, amusement - of which Marcel Marceau would have been proud. Mr Pasqua is one of the toughest politicians in France; and also one of the funniest.

"My mime is my answer," he says at last.

The question was this: would the vicious family quarrel within the Gaullist party be healed, as rumoured, by the startling come-back of Edouard Balladur as prime minister after the French parliamentary election? If I interpreted Mr Pasqua's facial grammar correctly, it would be unwise to bet too many euros on this prospect.

And yet Mr Balladur, a convinced pro-European, and Mr Pasqua, a leading "Euro-sceptique", have both made remarkable recoveries since the French election was called two weeks ago.

In 1995, Mr Balladur ran against his party boss, Jacques Chirac, in the presidential election. He lost. Mr Pasqua, a long-term confidant and supporter of Chirac, chose to support Mr Balladur when he was riding high in the polls. Afterwards, both were cast into outer political darkness by President Chirac.

And yet both are now much in demand to defend the government from which they were excluded. In Mr Pasqua's case, he is being besieged by requests from RPR candidates to come and waken up a campaign which is in danger of dozing off.

Is this not odd? Mr Pasqua is a cuttingly effective politician. But he is often most effective when criticising the policies and record of President Chirac and his Prime Minister, Alain Juppe.

On this occasion, he was talking over breakfast to a small group of foreign journalists. Despite a narrowing of the polls, and signs of alarm in the government camp, he said the centre-right parties would be safely returned to power in the two-round election on 25 May and 1 June. "The Socialists are not credible. They say they can, all at the same time, cut working hours, increase the standard of living, and reduce unemployment. When the French hear that, they burst out laughing. They are not stupid."

On the stump, Mr Pasqua lashes the Socialists in precisely this way. Push him even a little, however, and he gives his own colourful analysis of the condition of France, and the mood of the French. It amounts to a demolition of the record, and the programme, of the government he nominally supports.

On the European single currency, Mr Pasqua is by far the most eloquent Euro-sceptic of the French centre-right (he is far more right than centre). "The treaty of Maastricht was an historic error," he says. "Any attempt to accelerate towards [European] federalism is condemned to defeat ... the single currency was not economically motivated, but politically motivated ... It offers no particular economic advantage to France." Unless Emu includes the southern EU countries, and Britain, it will be meaningless, even dangerous.

But aren't his arguments much closer to those of the Socialists (newly- converted Emu-sceptics) than to Mr Chirac and Mr Juppe, who have gambled everything on the coming of the euro?

"I don't give a stuff what the Socialists think. I never think the same as them. Maybe, sometimes, they think the same as me."

Asked to summarise the problems facing France, Mr Pasqua says: "France is a capitalist country, without capitalists." By this, he says he means that there are too few people willing to take risks in France. The government system, and the banking system, are stacked against enterprise and risk- taking.

Mr Pasqua argues that the Juppe government's state-shrinking reforms have got off on the wrong track, largely because of the demands of Maastricht. It was quite right to reduce the government deficit and debt. But over a longer period. The priority should have been to reduce taxes, and especially the crippling social charges on industry. Instead, the obsession with the Maastricht deficit-cutting timetable led the Juppe government to increase social charges on business.

So this was a historic and stupid mistake, which helped to keep unemployment high? Mr Pasqua goes into his Marcel Marceau routine again.

Mr Juppe remains one of the most detested prime ministers in the history of French opinion polling. He is running a singularly limp campaign. Might Mr Chirac be tempted to dump him if the polls turn worse? Mr Chirac and Mr Balladur had breakfast together on the day we had breakfast with Mr Pasqua. The polls say the French people would like to see the return of Mr Balladur.

But we know - or we think we know - Mr Pasqua's answer to that question.