Mitterrand, Chirac battle for Paris

A new ''battle for Paris'' is being fought here - a political tussle between President Francois Mitterrand and Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac.

It all started when President Mitterrand authorized a plan to divide France's largest city into 20 districts. The Socialist President claimed his program would promote democracy and decentralization.

Most other commentators, however, thought he was taking a cheap shot at his main political rival, conservative Paris Mayor Chirac.

By dividing Paris into districts, each with its own municipal council and mayor, perhaps even its own police force and garbage collectors, Chirac's present position as mayor would become more ceremonial - and less powerful.

To Mr. Mitterrand, the changes are necessary to bring Parisians in closer touch with their government, while putting the city in line with the government's decentralization program.

But Chirac claimed the president's justifications were merely a facade for destroying his power base. ''The program is based on ulterior political motives, he charged.''

The mayor's attack seemed to score. Even the prestigious and normally pro-government Le Monde agreed with his reasoning.

''The plan is a political action against the capital's mayor,'' the paper's editor Andre Laurens wrote in a front page editorial.

Chirac also said the plan would lead the city into chaos and bankruptcy. Paris would be impossible to run coherently if divided into 20 different councils, each with a different political makeup. And, he charged that the resulting increase in administrative costs would eventually raise local taxes. The mayor also plastered the city with posters blaring the emotional message: ''They are trying to kill Paris. Paris wants to live.'' And a recent poll showed a majority of Paris voters - 53 percent - opposed to the decentralization plan.

Caught off balance, Mitterrand now has announced that Parisians would continue to elect their own mayor by direct suffrage as well as mayors for each of the capital's 20 districts.

By most measurements, this city of 2.5 million people is well-run. Streets sparkle. Buses and subways run on time; and they are clean, comfortable, and cheap. Most Parisians give Chirac credit for much of this. Polls show he is overwhelmingly popular in the city. Even many who abhor his conservative politics on the national level consider him a good mayor. He has helped revitalize the city's theater and has instituted a wide range of neighborhood events.

From his perch at Paris's town hall, Chirac has moved ahead of former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing as the leading conservative opposition figure in the country. In doing so, he has become the biggest political danger in the country to Mitterrand. In fact, for much of this century, the position of Paris mayor did not exist, precisely because the central government thought it would give too much political power to its holder.

But in 1975, President Giscard d'Estaing thought he could increase his hold over the country by reestablishing the mayor's office - and filling the post with a Giscardien. The decision proved politically disastrous, though. Many even say it was the beginning of Mr. Giscard d'Estaing's long road to defeat last year.

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