Leading Article: A risky initiative from a presidential PM

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The Independent Online
FROM this side of the Channel, the most striking item in yesterday's speech by France's new Prime Minister, Edouard Balladur, was his proposal for the European Community to call an international conference aimed, albeit somewhat vaguely, at 'stabilising the situation in Europe and creating balance'. This is a high-risk move, but in several respects a shrewd one.

Among its aims seem to be: first, to signal to President Francois Mitterrand that during this new bout of cohabitation between a Socialist president and a centre-right government, the government will not be leaving foreign affairs initiatives to the President; second, to show the rest of Europe, especially Germany, that the new French government intends to make a forceful contribution to European unity; and third, that something new needs to be tried in the way of constructive diplomacy aimed at stopping wars in the former Yugoslavia and in parts of the former Soviet Union.

It was a bizarre analogy that Mr Balladur drew with the Congress of Vienna in 1815, which negotiated a comprehensive treaty following the Napoleonic wars, and the Second World War settlement at the Yalta conference of 1945: both gatherings followed a very hot war, while Mr Balladur's proposed meeting would come long after the end of a cold one.

Mr Balladur's proposal puts France on the moral high ground, but makes it vulnerable to rejection. It is much easier to carve up a Europe shattered by a long, hot war than to settle what are essentially civil wars based on centuries of ethnic strife and accumulated hatred - especially when hundreds of potential conflicts over borders lurk beneath the surface. Governments do not like entering conferences whose chances of success are low. Given that the EC's member states have collectively failed to formulate and pursue effective joint policies towards the conflict in Bosnia, their chances of securing a successful outcome among a larger number of less compatible countries look slight.

Mr Balladur's domestic programme is notable for its toughness towards illegal immigrants, while offering 'tolerance and fairness' to legal ones. His promise that orders to expel illegal immigrants will be enforced 'without weakness' follows the shooting by the police of three suspects, two of them immigrants. Connections have been made between these incidents and the appointment of a hardliner, Charles Pasqua, as Interior Minister. Any crackdown on illegal immigrants gives the police great freedom to detain and harass anyone whose appearance they dislike.

The soberly confident tenor of Mr Balladur's pronouncements across the economic and social spectrum suggests a determination to make full use of the new government's overwhelming mandate. He went so far as to claim, as General de Gaulle liked to do, that he represented not just a party but all the French people, and would listen to those not represented in the Assembly, meaning, presumably, the Ecologists and the National Front. That can only be interpreted as another neat bid to render Mr Mitterrand redundant.