THE presidential election that looked like a sure victory for French Prime Minister Edouard Balladur only weeks ago is suddenly wide open.
Public-opinion polls released this week mark a sharp drop in support for Mr. Balladur. And a scandal involving illegal wiretaps threatens the credibility of both the prime minister and Interior Minister Charles Pasqua, a key strategist in Balladur's election campaign.
Last December, the prime minister's office authorized an ``emergency'' wiretap on the father-in-law of one of France's leading anticorruption judges. Critics charge these emergency wiretaps, normally reserved for cases involving organized-crime gangs, were related to a scheme to deflect Judge Eric Halphen's investigation into illegal campaign financing of Balladur's Rally for the Republic (RPR) party.
The prime minister initially defended the wiretaps, but was promptly contradicted by a senior official in charge of monitoring wiretaps. On Tuesday, Balladur admitted that errors had been made, without specifying which and by whom, but called on the French to put the affair in perspective. If a serious error has been committed, he said, it was surely the ``thousands of illegal wiretaps on politicians and journalists'' committed in the 1980s by Socialist President Francois Mitterrand's office, of which ``no one ever speaks.''
``It's not a political scandal,'' Balladur insisted, adding that the affair ``has nothing in common with Watergate [the US political scandal that led to the resignation of former President Richard Nixon].''
The timing of this scandal could not be worse for the prime minister. Polls announced this week, but taken before the latest developments on the scandal, already show an erosion of support for Balladur. In one, Socialist Candidate Lionel Jospin edges out both Balladur and fellow RPR candidate Jacques Chirac in the first round of voting on April 23. In another, the prime minister maintains a narrow lead over his rivals, but drops 6.5 points.
The Socialist campaign slogan, ``With Lionel Jospin all is clear,'' taps into the theme of anticorruption and political ``transparency.''
``France doesn't have the system of controls over campaign finance that exists in the United States,'' says Denis Lacorne, a political analyst for the Paris-based Center for Studies and International Research. ``Watergate was never understood here. But there is a new generation of judges that is aggressively pushing corruption investigations. They don't hesitate to take risks. But despite new laws and amnesty, French political parties continue illegal finance practices.''