Mon, Apr 16, 2012 - Page 9 News List

France weighs up contenders for position of prime minister

Although veteran politicians Laurent Fabius and Alain Juppe are from opposing parties, they are cut from the same cloth, while Socialist Party leader Martine Aubry, to the left of the party’s presidential candidate, Francois Hollande, could also end up as the next French prime minister

By Paul Taylor  /  Reuters, Paris

Illustration: Yusha

Two of the potential candidates to be France’s next prime minister look strikingly alike, attended the same elite colleges, survived political scandals and have both previously occupied the post seen as a thankless ejector seat.

If Socialist frontrunner Francois Hollande is elected president on May 6, Laurent Fabius, 65, could be in for a comeback as French prime minister, a post he first held more than a quarter-of-a-century ago from 1984 to 1986. He could also be made foreign minister.

Fabius has been in charge of Hollande’s program for his first 100 days and the candidate told a rally in January: “I’m going to need him in the future,” which many interpreted as a signal that he would have a leading role in government.

However, Hollande may prefer Martine Aubry, the Socialist party leader whom he defeated in a primary last year, both to reach out to the electorate of hard-left candidate Jean-Luc Melenchon and to respect a pledge of male-female parity.

If conservative French President Nicolas Sarkozy is re-elected against the odds, French Minister of Foreign and European Affairs Alain Juppe, 66, is well placed to return to the office he held from 1995 to 1997.

However, Sarkozy has hinted the job could also go to centrist presidential candidate Francois Bayrou, 60, whose estimated 10 percent of the vote may be decisive in the May 6 runoff.

Both Fabius and Juppe are sons of middle-class families who followed the classic meritocratic career path of the Ecole Normale Superieur literary school, the Institut d’etudes politiques (Sciences Po) and the Ecole National d’Administration (ENA) college that trains top public servants.

Both became career politicians, but saw their presidential aspirations thwarted by scandal, leaving a return to the prime ministerial post as the last major prize.

In addition, both men are seen as a “safe pairs of hands,” with the experience and authority to run a tight ship in heavy seas.

Whoever wins the presidency will need to reassure financial markets after a fiesta of spending promises and may have to implement tougher cost--cutting measures than either candidate has admitted are necessary during the campaign.

Insiders in the Hollande and Sarkozy camps said that makes them more likely to pick firm-handed veterans with nothing to lose, rather than to promote a young, ambitious 40-something.

While Fabius has flirted with the Socialist left and led a “no” campaign that helped defeat a 2005 referendum on an EU Constitution, he is a pragmatist whose elevation would be more likely to reassure investors and foreign governments.

The youngest prime minister of the French Fifth Republic when he took office at 37 under then-French president Francois Mitterrand in 1984, Fabius made a mark as an industrial modernizer. He oversaw the closure of loss-making steel plants and helped restore budget discipline after Mitterrand’s profligate first two years.

“We have to abandon the idea that when it comes to public spending, more means better,” Fabius said at the time.

SCANDALS

Two scandals tarnished his reputation — the sinking of the Greenpeace anti-nuclear ship Rainbow Warrior by French agents in Auckland, New Zealand, in which a photographer died, and the deadly infection of hundreds of hemophiliacs with HIV-tainted blood transfusions.

Fabius said he was unaware of the covert operation, approved by then-French defense minister Charles Hernu, to pre-empt efforts to disrupt underground nuclear tests in French Polynesia. In the contaminated blood affair, Fabius asked for his own immunity to be lifted so he could stand trial and was acquitted in 1999.

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