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French Conservatives Meet to Choose New Leaders - 2002-11-16

Conservative politicians are gathering outside Paris Sunday to choose new leaders and a new name for the one-year-old Union for the Presidential Majority Party.

Even before the start of the day-long meeting, many politicians and pundits placed their bets on former Prime Minister Alain Juppe to be elected head of the new umbrella party.

They also predicted Senator Jean-Claude Gaudin and Philippe Douste-Blazy, the mayor of Toulouse, would capture the other top seats.

However, political analysts like Colette Ysmal say, the biggest uncertainty is on the long-term viability of the umbrella party.

Ms. Ysmal, a researcher at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris, said French history and the personal ambitions of rival politicians suggest it will be difficult for such a large and diverse party to survive.

Unlike Germany, Britain and the United States, France has no tradition of one large party serving various ideological currents. In this spring's presidential election, more than two dozen candidates represented groups from the far left to the far right.

The French left has also tried to reunite under one banner, but with little success.

Experts say sharp divisions within the former leftist coalition government was at least partly to blame for its heavy defeat at the polls this year. And many politicians have rejected recent calls by former Greens Party leader Dominique Voynet to form an all-encompassing leftist party.

The new conservative party idea was hatched by former Prime Minister Juppe, a close friend of President Jacques Chirac.

Mr. Juppe is widely expected to run for president five years from now, if Mr. Chirac steps down. However he faces tough competition from rival politicians, including Prime Minister Jean-Pierre Raffarin and Interior Minister Nicolas Sarkozy.

In an interview Friday on France Info radio, the present prime minister sought to play down the internal divisions.

Mr. Raffarin said he liked and admired Mr. Juppe, and counted on him to lead the new party.

A remote, but brilliant technocrat, Mr. Juppe served as President Chirac's prime minister from 1995 to 1997. He was deeply unpopular for drafting tough, new economic austerity measures, and for what was seen as his high-handed manner in launching them. If he does win the leadership, it is far from clear whether Mr. Juppe can tolerate, much less unite, France's many and diverse conservative currents.