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France Astir as Ministers Propose Presidential Bid by Prime Minister

FRANCE'S political world was given a good shaking when two top ministers declared their support for a presidential bid by Prime Minister Edouard Balladur.

The big question is to what extent did Mr. Balladur condone the statements made by two of his ministers on Dec. 19. In separate television interviews, Simone Veil, social affairs minister and first in the line of succession to the prime minister, and Defense Minister Francois Leotard extolled Balladur for what they called his presidential qualities.

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When Balladur named his government in April - a mix of right and center-right politicians - he cautioned them against any presidential politicking until three months before the spring 1995 vote. But political observers here doubt that such contradictions of the chief's orders would have been made without at least his tacit approval.

THE declarations of support come in the aftermath of what was considered the prime minister's masterful direction of the ``GATT problem.'' In eight months of government, Balladur turned the liability of international trade liberalization talks, which had convulsed rural France and created hysteria over French identity, into an advantage. When the National Assembly voted in favor of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade accord Dec. 15, Balladur emerged with his high public-opinion ratings intact and his presidential qualities enhanced.

Mrs. Veil said she was only stating what ``the whole country is saying'' and what many political leaders are whispering.

The declarations, however, risk troubling an uneasy calm in the governing French right. Both Veil and Mr. Leotard are part of the center-right Union for French Democracy, the party of former president and future presidential hopeful Valery Giscard d'Estaing. But Balladur hails from the Gaullist Rally for the Republic - whose ``virtual'' candidate in the 1995 race is former prime minister and longtime presidential hopeful Jacques Chirac.

Balladur raised a few eyebrows on his own when he declared in an interview published Dec. 20 that he could not imagine remaining prime minister for a full parliamentary term of five years. ``Two years, yes,'' he said. ``After that we'll see.''

The prime minister has repeatedly insisted that he cannot discuss domestic politics while France's worst problem, unemployment, commands his full attention. But with new studies from both domestic and international economic forecasters showing unemployment only beginning to fall in 1995 - in time for the presidential elections - Balladur may be letting the statistics, just like a couple of ministers, do the talking for him.

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