French Premier to Resign After Vote

PARIS -- French Prime Minister Alain Jupp? said Monday he would resign the premiership whoever won next Sunday's parliamentary election runoff in a last-ditch bid to save his center-right coalition, outpolled by the left-wing opposition in the first round.

After calling on President Jacques Chirac, Jupp? told a meeting of coalition leaders: "We need a new team led by a new prime minister."

The Gaullist premier has borne the brunt of blame for austerity, high taxes and record unemployment in the two years since Chirac took office and was held responsible for the conservatives' poor showing in Sunday's first round.

Jupp?, 51, is Chirac's longest-serving political associate and aides told reporters only last week that the president hoped to reappoint him if the center-right won the election.

His decision to sacrifice himself enables Chirac to promise voters a fresh start if they re-elect the coalition rather than forcing him to "cohabit" with a hostile, Socialist-led cabinet.

Socialist and Communist leaders, scenting an upset victory, said Jupp?'s departure was an admission of failure and showed the coalition was panicking.

"This announcement is a sign of the coalition's panic in the face of massive rejection by the electorate. It's just one more incident within the outgoing government and an admission of failure," said former Socialist culture minister Jack Lang.

Communist Party leader Robert Hue said Jupp?'s departure showed the right was in disarray but he stressed the French people wanted a change of policy and not just a new face.

Political sources said Chirac was expected to address the nation, possibly as early as Tuesday night.

He was unlikely to name a preferred successor to Jupp? before the runoff, but he may indicate whether he wants a more socially-minded, or a more free-marketeering policy.

Among prominent candidates are National Assembly president Philippe Seguin, a popular Gaullist Eurosceptic who worries financial markets, and ex-prime minister Edouard Balladur, recently rehabilitated after he fought fellow Gaullist Chirac unsuccessfully for the presidency in 1995.

French stocks plunged on Monday as anxious traders weighed the risk of an upset left-wing victory in next Sunday's runoff, a prospect financial markets had not taken seriously.

Final Interior Ministry results showed the combined left polled 40.22 percent, the center-right RPR-UDF coalition and other moderate rightists 36.50 percent and the extreme-right National Front 14.94 percent. Ecologists scored 6.81 percent.

The left's score adds up to more than 44 percent if the Greens, the biggest ecologist group which has an electoral pact with the Socialists, are counted.