The musketeer and Mazarin duel for a nation

French elections/ Chirac and Balladur, two sides of the right

JACQUES CHIRAC

Age 62

Place of birth Paris

Married, two daughters

Current job Mayor of Paris

Position sought President of France

CV MP since 1967; Minister 67-74; PM 74-76 and 86-88; Founded neo-Gaullist RPR party 1976

Appearance Cavalry colonel

Style Naturally excitable, but alleged to have calmed down

Favourite food Calf's head

Dinner parties Hates them

Happiest In a crowd

Unhappiest Listening to classical music

Nickname The bulldozer

Natural supporters Nationalists, farmers, the young

Embarrassments Repair work on a chteau, which enabled him to avoid paying tax; low rent charged for his Paris flat by firm which works for City of Paris

EDOUARD BALLADUR

Age 64

Place of birth Smyrna, Turkey

Married, four children

Current job PM of France

Position sought President of France

CV Presidential Chief of Staff 73-74; Private business 77-84; Finance Minister 86-88; MP since 1988; PM since 1993

Appearance a Levantine archbishop

Style Snobbish, soporific, but has shown signs of life

Favourite food Steamed sole

Dinner parties In seventh heaven

Happiest Being waited on

Unhappiest Shaking voters' hands

Nickname Balla-mou (Balla-soft)

Natural supporters Elderly upper-middle class

Embarrassments Lucrative share option from privatised firm; playing common man

FOR 25 years, they were the closest of political friends. Today, France is captivated by their rivalry, played out for the nation on television every night. It is a classic duel to the death between two men who suddenly seem to have nothing in common except their ambition to be the next president of France. It is also a showdown between two strands of right-wing politics which have marked the country for 35 years.

On the one hand, there's the populist right, embodied in the catch-all Republican vision being hawked by Jacques Chirac, the self-appointed heir of Gaul-lism and current favourite to be elected president next month. On the other hand, there is the more discreet, upper-middle-class right which prefers to do its deals in ornate salons rather than jostle for votes in the street and which has found its perfect emanation in the Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur.

Twice prime minister, founder of the neo-Gaullist RPR Party, Mayor of Paris for 18 years, Mr Chirac has a policy for everything. He promises to cut taxes, raise spending and reduce the deficit. He will reduce France's high Aids rate by abolishing VAT on contraceptives. He is the farmer's friend and the guardian of French culture.

Despite all this activity, Mr Chirac's friends insist that he had found unaccustomed tranquillity in his third presidential bid. In his more agitated years, when President Mitterrand complained that he contradicted himself between breakfast and lunch and then again between lunch and dinner, Mr Chirac needed a calming influence. He found it in a wise elder-brother figure, Edouard Balladur.

Mr Chirac sent Mr Balladur drafts of his speeches for revision. He telephoned several times a day for advice. But the two men are chalk and cheese. Mr Chirac answers the telephone with a curt greeting while Mr Balladur is famed for his drawn-out, courtly Alloooo. The mayor says he sees himself as the impetuous fourth musketeer d'Artagnan and Mr Balladur as the wily court politician, Cardinal Mazarin. The cardinal and the musketeer made a good partnership. In 1986 Mr Chirac pulled his friend and party colleague out of the back room to be Finance Minister. After the RPR-led right- wing victory in 1993 legislative elections, Mr Balladur became Prime Minister with an understanding that he would back Mr Chirac for President in 1995.

In a speech in September 1993 to an RPR gathering in the yachting port of La Rochelle, attended by Mr Balladur, Mr Chriac referred to their presidential pact and tried to catch his friend's eye: the Prime Minister looked pointedly up at the ceiling. The two men then went for a walk round the harbour and, Mr Chirac said later, "I understood that the presidential election might well not turn out as planned." To begin with the Prime Minister had the wind in his sails. For a country fed up with party squabbles and political scandals, he was agreeably above the fray and far too grand to be corrupt. He earned quick popularity by giving way to strikes, demonstrations, and pressure groups - and soon had more than half the cabinet behind his presidential bid. The Mayor of Paris swore to friends that he would make Mr Balladur pay dearly when the time was ripe. That time now appears to have come.

Although he has been at the forefront of French politics for more than 20 years, Mr Chirac's turbo-charged style enables him to pose as the candidate of change in the run-up to the first round of voting next Sunday. He has watched Gaullist ministers desert him, but he still controls the party machine.

In contrast Mr Balladur is a weak campaigner surrounded by fairweather friends who are starting to wonder if they made a terrible mistake. He climbs on to caf tables to talk to ordinary folk but his heart isn't in it. He tries to chat to young people about their craze for street basketball but clearly doesn't know what he's talking about. Last week the Prime Minister attended a big bicycle race and confided that when he was young he did "a little cycling". Mr Chirac tells similar crowds that he adores whatever their sport happens to be and launches into a string of winning anecdotes.

The latest polls give Mr Chirac 26-27 per cent of the first round vote and Mr Balladur 17.5-19 per cent, with the socialist Lionel Jospin scoring 19.5-21 per cent. The two candidates who do best next Sunday go into the run-off on 7 May. Most polls have a margin of error of two points either way and up to a third of the electorate has not made up its mind.

So, while a right-left second round looks most likely, Mr Balladur's campaign managers believe he could still win through to a final battle against his former friend. Even if that does not happen, the Chirac-Balladur fight has given new life to a conflict which has run through the orthodox French right since General de Gaulle established the Fifth Republic in 1958. Against Mr Chirac's machine - politics, populism - the Prime Minister represents middle-class conservatism which has never been at home with Gaullism and which believes the ruling class should be left to get on with the job. As Mr Chirac contem-ptuously sums up the Balladur message to the nation: "Don't worry; sleep; I'm watching out."

This strand of conservatism has its greatest success in the presidency of Valery Giscard d'Estaing in the 1970s. Although Mr Chirac contributed powerfully to his defeat in 1981, the former President has shown a superficially surprising but well advertised preference for the Mayor of Paris over the Prime Minister this time around. There is a good reason for this: the still politically active Mr Giscard d'Estaing has no reason not to loathe Mr Chirac for his past behaviour, but he knows that a Balladur presidency would hijack his supporters in the provincial bourgeoisie and Parisian society, not to mention among weather-cock conservative ministers.

If Mr Balladur loses, either on 23 April or 7 May, President Chirac's revenge is likely to be savage. The French political scene will change again as the man who advocated "French labourism" and then espoused Thatcherism sets out to give life to his latest idea - an all-embracing "Republican Pact" for the nation. And there will be another, more private change: Mr Chirac will be on his own, with no urbane elder brother at the other end of the telephone.

ends

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