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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Scandals, Feuds Rock Balladur

PARIS -- Only a month ago, the presidential fortunes of France's Gaullist Prime Minister Edouard Balladur looked unassailable. He was riding high in opinion polls, the economy was starting to perk up and even his political foes admitted he loomed as Socialist President Fran?ois Mitterrand's most likely successor.


But within a matter of weeks, Balladur has come close to being knocked off his patrician pedestal. His center-right government is being ripped apart by judicial inquiries and political intrigue, as cabinet ministers fight to stay out of jail or draw battle lines behind Balladur or his rival, Gaullist party chief Jacques Chirac.


Two ministers have been forced to resign on corruption charges, and four more are believed to be under investigation. Aides to the prime minister say they suspect that the timing of the scandals and the coming presidential campaign are related.


Alain Carignon and Gerard Longuet, the two ministers who stepped down, were close allies of Balladur who were considered important to his strategy of forming a new political coalition after the presidential election.


Even though Balladur's personal rectitude has not been called into question, the fact that the scandals have implicated his political allies has eroded some of Balladur's stature because he took office promising sound, honest government that would not tolerate even a whiff of corruption.


The simmering feud between Balladur and Chirac over who will lead the ruling majority into the presidential campaign has sparked open political warfare among their loyalists in the cabinet. The fighting has intensified in recent weeks as Mitterrand's deteriorating health in the wake of cancer surgery spawned speculation of an early presidential election. The first round of voting is scheduled for April.


Seeking to restore unity within his government, Balladur on Tuesday summoned Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, Chirac's main supporter within the cabinet, and appealed for a political truce until the end of the year. They were later joined by Interior Minister Charles Pasqua and Defense Minister Fran?ois Leotard, who have clashed repeatedly with Juppe over policy.


Juppe, who had just returned from a tour of Persian Gulf countries, said later he was "dumbfounded by the deterioration of the political climate" in the past few days. "It seems to me that it is urgent for the coalition and the government to get a grip on themselves," he said.


Leotard, a Balladur admirer, twice infuriated Juppe last week by saying that a desire to boost the Democrats in the November elections may have prompted the Clinton administration to rush troops to Kuwait. He then outraged the army-backed government in Algeria by declaring Moslem fundamentalists eventually would seize power there.


In the political calculus behind the rivalry between Balladur and Chirac, political sources close to both men acknowledge that the fighting between their surrogates is motivated by their desire to become prime minister -- Leotard or Pasqua in a Balladur presidency and Juppe in a Chirac one.


By most reckonings, the greatest damage has been inflicted on Balladur's undeclared candidacy. He has blown a huge lead in just a few weeks and now appears to be running even in the polls with Jacques Delors, the president of the European Union's executive commission who is expected to become the candidate of the opposition Socialists. In virtually every poll, Chirac trails both men.


The conflict on the right has become so vicious that some government supporters openly despair that their coalition may be doomed to a third consecutive defeat in presidential elections less than two years after capturing 80 percent of the seats in parliament.