Tapie could go for the long shot: Left-wing disarray may draw populist football tycoon into a challenge for the French presidency

THERE was no reason, said Bernard Tapie, why he and Henri Emanuelli, the new leader of France's Socialist Party, should not get along. After all, they had much in common: both had been charged with fraud.

That remark put the finger on the main reason for French disillusionment with the left these days. Its politicians are largely discredited after years of disclosures about corruption.

True, the charge against Mr Emanuelli over irregularities in party accounts has none of the panache of the plethora of cases against Mr Tapie, from charges of tax evasion on his private yacht through mismanagement of his companies to the bribery scandal that cost his Olympique de Marseille (OM) footbal team its European title last year.

The difference between the mainstream Socialist Party, headed until last Sunday by an irreproachable figure, Michel Rocard, and the small left-wing Radicals Movement (MRG) of Mr Tapie is that the Tapie list did well in the European elections two weeks ago. His movement took a handsome 12.5 per cent and 13 seats, while the Socialists were humiliated, taking only 14.5 per cent and 15 seats, a disastrous score for the main alternative government party.

It was a huge personal defeat for Mr Rocard who, paradoxically, was one of modern France's most popular prime ministers when he had the difficult task of running a minority government under Francois Mitterrand from 1988 to 1991.

The days that followed showed what Mr Rocard has known all along: that his face does not fit in a Socialist Party whose leadership he grabbed from Laurent Fabius, a Mitterrand pet, after its staggering defeat in general elections last year.

Mr Mitterrand and the mincing courtiers who surround him, as the President goes into the last 10 months of his tenure at the Elysee Palace, made little attempt to hide their glee at Mr Rocard's second humiliation in a week, when he lost a party confidence vote last Sunday and handed over the reins to Mr Emmanuelli, the former president, or speaker, of the National Assembly.

At a victory lunch in the Elysee on Monday, attended by Roland Dumas, the former foreign minister, and the flamboyant Jack Lang, ex-culture minister, Mr Mitterrand said he had just been speaking to Mr Emmanuelli on the telephone. 'We had a good laugh,' he said.

Until the European elections, Mr Rocard had been the likely Socialist candidate for the presidential elections next May. Now the door is open for Jacques Delors, retiring European Commission president, to make a long-awaited bid. Constantly tipped by the pollsters as the left's best chance, he is receiving considerable support within the Socialist Party. But whenever the door has creaked open in the past, Mr Delors himself has shown little inclination to pass through it.

But his family is said to be against him launching himself into the rough-and-tumble of an election campaign as he approaches 70.

A campaign would be a new experience for Mr Delors. A man who came up the ladder through public service, he has only once fought an election: for the town hall of the Paris suburb of Clichy, where he was mayor for one year until he went to Brussels 10 years ago.

He is said to have told friends that he does not feel suited to the hustings. If Mr Delors does stand, he will certainly gather broad left-wing support. He is reported to have joked with Edouard Balladur, the Gaullist Prime Minister, last week that he might consider doing so if this would help Mr Balladur's own chances. For few now think that the left has much hope of retaining the Elysee when Mr Mitterrand retires.

If Mr Delors does not stand, other speculation centres on Mr Lang. This prospect might tempt Mr Tapie, whose main sights are set on the Marseilles city hall next June, to try his presidential chances.

Both he and Mr Lang have the reputation of being popular among the young. Aged 51, Mr Tapie, with his direct language, also has a good following among the working class. He is accused by his rivals of being simplistic and populist, a sort of French version of Italian tycoon politician Silvio Berlusconi, albeit at the opposite end of the political spectrum. If Mr Tapie, the former boss of Adidas, does challenge for the presidency, this will undoubtedly lead to one of the roughest presidential battles France has known.

'Tapie's a genius,' said one prominent conservative politician. 'Just when you think you've got him, he comes out with the most unexpected rejoinder and floors you.'

An example of this came when Philippe de Villiers, who headed a dissident conservative European list with Sir James Goldsmith as his lieutenant, called Mr Tapie 'a thug' on a radio programme. 'You talk like that on the radio,' said Mr Tapie, 'but that's not how you behave when you come with me to football matches.'

The legal roller-coaster that Mr Tapie rides - he was up last week when an appeals court suspended the football federation's decision to strip him of the OM chairmanship - is heading for a dip this week.

Before parliament recesses for the summer on Thursday, the National Assembly is due to vote on two requests by examining magistrates to lift his parliamentary immunity, so that he can face more charges. It is a degrading procedure that Mr Tapie has suffered before.

The vote will probably not happen. Mr Tapie, if he wants to sit at Strasbourg and keep his important local base as a member of the Provence regional council, has to give up his other elected post, his National Assembly seat.

His resignation from the national parliament tomorrow or the next day would spare him a new round of high-profile humiliation.

Then the judges will have three weeks to charge him before his new European Parliament immunity comes into force on 19 July.

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