Balladur Throws His Beret in the Ring : France: Popular prime minister enters race for presidency. His main rival is Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac, a fellow rightist.


With opinion polls crowning him the heavy favorite, Prime Minister Edouard Balladur on Wednesday formally announced his decision to run for president of France, kicking off the most important presidential campaign here since Francois Mitterrand took power 14 years ago.

Balladur’s announcement was no surprise. But it was the opening shot in a three-month campaign that many French analysts expect will be especially bitter and scarred by internecine battles on the political right.

French conservatives, who won control of Parliament and the day-to-day workings of government in a stunning victory over Mitterrand’s Socialist Party in 1993, now have the chance to complete their sweep of power. Mitterrand, 78 and ill with prostate cancer, is not seeking a third seven-year term, and his Socialists have no strong candidate.


Yet the right--including Balladur’s own Rally for the Republic party, or RPR--is deeply divided between two strong candidates who share the same ideology, which they trace to former President Charles de Gaulle.

On one side is Balladur, a quiet, pragmatic 65-year-old who has never conducted a national political campaign but has been one of France’s most popular prime ministers.

On the other side is Jacques Chirac, 62, the gregarious mayor of Paris, longtime leader of the RPR, a two-time prime minister and two-time unsuccessful candidate for president against Mitterrand.

“I’m not the candidate of any party,” Balladur declared Wednesday in launching his campaign in a nationally televised address from his office. “I hope to govern for all of France.”

In fact, Balladur’s own party officially supports Chirac, who founded the RPR in 1976, despite opinion polls giving Balladur a decisive margin of victory over any other candidate in the field. So deep are party divisions that Alain Juppe, Balladur’s own foreign minister, has endorsed Chirac, who announced his candidacy in the fall.


But Balladur received an important endorsement earlier this week from Charles Pasqua, his popular interior minister and a key figure in the party. Other Cabinet ministers from parties closely aligned with the RPR have also thrown their support behind Balladur.


The French electorate, still quaking from sweeping reforms during Mitterrand’s early years and sharing Americans’ general distrust of politicians, has grown fond of Balladur’s cautious, low-key style of governing.

Recent polls indicate that Balladur would defeat Chirac, his closest rival, 65% to 35% in a two-man race. The first round of presidential voting is scheduled for April 23. If no candidate receives more than half the vote, which seems likely, a runoff will be held between the two top candidates on May 7.

Balladur’s record in 21 months in office has been mixed. His conservative coalition controls 80% of the seats in Parliament, but he has moved slowly in dealing with problems facing France. High on that list is unemployment, which stands at 12.6%, one of the highest rates in industrial Europe.

Deficit spending has also increased during Balladur’s tenure, and three of his Cabinet ministers are under investigation on corruption charges. Those allegations relate primarily to party financing, which could taint Chirac’s candidacy, as well.

Some of Balladur’s critics have complained that he has a weak backbone. But his public standing was enhanced last month when he ordered the police commando raid on an Air France plane that had been hijacked by Algerian terrorists. The terrorists were killed, and about 170 passengers were freed.

Balladur was an adviser to former President Georges Pompidou in the 1960s and was finance minister in 1986-88.


More on Balladur

* Reprints of the Los Angeles Times interview with Edouard Balladur, in which he focuses on the idea of defending French culture from invading Americanisms, are available from Times on Demand. Call 808-8463 and press *8630, select option 1 and order No. 6043. $2.

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