The rise and rise of a smooth operator

France/ leadership star

THERE was a moment five months ago when the world discovered there was more to Alain Jupp than a formidable brain and an immaculately groomed exterior. As France's Foreign Minister, he had just returned with Douglas Hurd, the Foreign Secretary, from Belgrade, where they had tried yet again to enlist the help of Serbia's President, Slobodan Milosevic, in brokering a Bosnian peace settlement.

The Paris press commentaries were scathing. "Sell-out!" they cried. Daniel Schneidermann, television columnist for Le Monde, went so far as to compare Mr Jupp and Mr Hurd with Edouard Daladier and Neville Chamberlain, Hitler's appeasers at Munich.

Asked on television for his reaction, Mr Jupp cast diplomacy to the winds and exploded in uncharacteristic anger: "I prefer to go to Belgrade, Budapest and other places to try to move things forward and convince the different parties than to sit on my arse in Paris writing impassioned articles that lead nowhere. History will decide where courage lies and who is being demagogic."

It is a tribute to his determination and political skills that Mr Jupp's career has flourished despite his association with the Western policy fiasco in former Yugoslavia. Foreign Minister since March 1993, Mr Jupp, 49, is expected to be named on Thursday as President Jacques Chirac's prime minister - the second most powerful person in France. His appointment will represent another step in a seemingly effortless progression up the political ladder that began with a job as a Chirac speechwriter in 1976 and could culminate in a successful run for the presidency in the next election in 2002.

Mr Jupp is a fast-track Gaullist on the movement's moderate wing, an energetic, incisive, prematurely bald and twice-married intellectual for whom the phrase "a master of his brief" could have been invented. He was the star of the French show at the Gatt world trade talks, where his grasp of the technical issues surrounding audiovisual and agricultural trade weakened a US attempt to make French markets more open. He also has a cool head in a crisis, as was demonstrated during last December's hijacking of an Air France aircraft by Algerian Islamic militants. While the hardline Interior Minister, Charles Pasqua, wanted to storm the plane in Algiers, Mr Jupp persuaded the Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, to let the hijackers fly to France, where it would be easier to finish them off. Events proved him right.

Born in 1945, into a farming family in the Landes in southwestern France, he has the farmer's ability to sense what the weather will be like tomorrow and plan accordingly. He was one of the first members of Mr Balladur's outgoing government to make clear he would not support the Prime Minister in the presidential campaign, but would back Mr Chirac. Others, such as Mr Pasqua, picked the wrong man and are now checking into the political wilderness.

As the campaign progressed, Mr Jupp ranged beyond foreign affairs in his speeches, discussing the economic challenges facing France's future leaders and adding weight to his image. Once Mr Balladur was eliminated in the first round, Mr Jupp was dubbed prime minister- in-waiting, a media label neither he nor his aides did anything to discourage.

Under the constitutional system devised by Charles de Gaulle, the prime minister is very definitely subordinate to the president - a fact that Mr Chirac well knows, having had to resign as prime minister in 1976 over disagreements with the then president, Valry Giscard d'Estaing. Within these limits, however, Mr Jupp could prove one of the most influential prime ministers the Fifth Republic has seen since its birth in 1958.

Even if he gives up his temporary leadership of the Gaullist party, the Rally for the Republic (RPR), Mr Jupp will remain one of its dominant figures. He is also expected to run for mayor of Bordeaux - and win - in next month's municipal elections.

Within the national government, he is certain to continue playing a strong role in foreign policy. The three men being touted as his replacement at the Quai d'Orsay are all relative lightweights - the Education Minister, Francis Bayrou, the Housing Minister, Herv de Charette, and Charles Millon, the parliamentary floor leader of the centre-right Union for French Democracy (UDF).

However, the real test for Mr Jupp will centre on economic matters. Mr Chirac's first public pledges after winning on 7 May were to bring down unemployment and to tackle social deprivation. This will cost money, but Mr Jupp opposes measures that could hinder France's efforts to reduce its budget deficit and join Germany and other European Union countries in a single currency in 1999.

He is considered more enthusiastic about European monetary and political union than the President, and his stewardship of the government is intended to send reassuring signals to France's EU allies. But it is easy to see that his 20-year political friendship with Mr Chirac could come under strain as a result of the conflicting pressures of European integration and domestic French economic and social problems.

Like Mr Chirac, Mr Jupp was educated at the finest French colleges, including the Ecole Nationale d'Administration, a kind of incubation centre for presidents, prime ministers and other masters of the universe. He had no time for the excitable students who poured on to the streets in May 1968. Married before he was 21, he had a son and a daughter and was remarried in 1993 to Isabelle Legrand-Botin.

His association with Mr Chirac dates from 1976, when the future president founded the RPR to revive the Gaullist movement and provide a vehicle for his own ambitions. After Mr Chirac became mayor of Paris in 1977, Mr Jupp quickly took responsibility for the city's financial affairs.

He has done stints as a Euro- MP, as RPR secretary-general and as budget minister. A fluent English speaker, he was made foreign minister at at a time when the West had already been floundering in former Yugoslavia for 21 months. Though critical of US proposals for lifting the arms embargo on the Bosnian Muslims, he resembles Mr Chirac in that he is keen to see the US play a prominent part in European security matters.

The Chirac-Jupp team should be fascinating to watch: the impulsive seeking an equilibrium with the calculating, the visionary with the technocratic, the rough with the smooth. Few French prime ministers have lasted very long since Georges Pompidou (1962-68), but even if Mr Jupp is out within two years, he has bigger prizes to play for in the future.

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