Divided, French Right May Conquer Itself

FRENCH conservatives, bickering among themselves ahead of presidential elections next spring, may do well to note the wallop US Democrats received in elections last week.

The issues are different, but the moral is unchanged: Electoral triumph one year does not ensure voters will feel the same two years later.

Bitter personal rivalries threaten to splinter the Gaullist Rally for the Republic (RPR), which last year took control of Parliament in landslide elections and forced a conservative government on Socialist President Francois Mitterrand.

``The conservative split is a reflection of a crisis of political parties that's going on in many Western democracies,'' says Pascal Perrineau, director of the Paris-based Center for the Study of French Political Life. ``Parties aren't representing the electorate.''

Jacques Chirac, RPR founder and mayor of Paris, has locked horns with Prime Minister Edouard Balladur in a battle to break the 14-year Socialist hold on the presidency. Former President Valery Giscard d'Estaing, leader of another right-center party, said yesterday he too may join the conservative scramble for power.

Polls show, however, that only Mr. Balladur would be able to defeat the leading prospective Socialist candidate, outgoing European Commission President Jacques Delors.

Regardless of the result, a bumpy campaign will affect more than just the French. Paris is due to assume the rotating presidency of the European Union on Jan. 1, 1995.

Mr. Chirac has already assailed the idea of a single European currency. Even if he is not elected, Chirac's campaign may encourage French Euroskeptics, who almost defeated a referendum on the EU Maastricht Treaty in 1992.

On the outskirts of Paris, Balladur underscored the split last weekend by staying away from a special party meeting.

Chirac noticed. ``I have learned to distinguish true friends from courtesans,'' he told his fellow Gaullists. ``The friends are you. The courtesans decide on the basis of office or opinion polls.''

Analyst Mr. Perrineau says, ``The conflict between Balladur and Chirac is a conflict between the opinion of conservative voters, who favor Balladur, and the logic of militants, who remain loyal to [Chirac].''

Philippe Moreau Defarges of the French Institute of International Relations concurs. ``The Gaullist party is a well-organized political machine, but it has no vision for the future,'' he says. ``To be a Gaullist refers to a past, but what makes a political party is a vision for the future.

``This party is condemned to disappear or transform itself completely,'' he adds. ``That's why there is so much intense personal rivalry in this campaign.''

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