PARIS (Reuters) - 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, may be in for a comeback to the premiership, which he held more than a quarter 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 President Nicolas Sarkozy is re-elected against the odds, Foreign Minister Alain Juppe, 66, is well placed to return to the office he held from 1995 to 1997.
But Sarkozy has hinted the job might 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 des Sciences Politiques 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 premiership as the last major prize.
And both are seen as “safe pairs of hands”, with the experience and authority to run a tight ship in a 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 say 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 a European Union constitution, he is a pragmatist whose elevation would be more likely to reassure investors and foreign governments.
The youngest prime minister of the Fifth Republic when he took office at 37 under 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.
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 haemophiliacs with HIV-tainted blood transfusions.
Fabius said he was unaware of the covert operation, approved by then-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.
The court found that his actions as prime minister had speeded up a decision to screen blood donors for the AIDS virus, but the affair still shackles his political career.
However, to younger voters, the idea of bringing back a man who was premier when Mikhail Gorbachev became leader of the Soviet Union and Ronald Reagan was president of the United States may seem like “back to the future”.
Fabius ran unsuccessfully in a primary for the Socialist nomination in 2007, his only bid for the presidency. Hollande has used him as a personal envoy to governments in Washington, Beijing and Tokyo during this year’s campaign.
Fabius is seen as more experienced and business-friendly than Aubry, 61, who was responsible for implementing the reduction of the work week to 35 hours when the Socialists were last in power in 2000 and is closer to the left of the party.
Daughter of former European Commission President Jacques Delors and mayor of the northern city of Lille, Aubry also graduated from Sciences-Po and ENA after earning an economics degree at Assas University in Paris.
Unlike Fabius or Juppe, she spent some time in the private sector, working at former aluminium maker Pechiney. She also created a foundation sponsored by big corporations to help young people from poor backgrounds train for private sector jobs.
Aubry has a feisty temperament, which she contrasted with Hollande’s “soggy left” manner in the primary debates, and would be seen by financial markets as more of a tax-and-spend choice.
Two other potential premiers are Michel Sapin, 58, a former finance minister and close Hollande ally since they attended ENA in the same year, and Jean-Marc Ayrault, 62, the German-speaking Socialist floor leader in parliament, whose handicap, like Hollande, is that he lacks ministerial experience.
“BEST AMONG US”
On the right, Juppe, a protege of the Gaullist President Jacques Chirac, led an ill-fated attempt to reform public sector pensions, healthcare and welfare finances in 1995, triggering a public sector strike that caused prolonged disruption.
Although the health reform was implemented, helping lower France’s public deficit to the Maastricht treaty target of 3.0 percent of gross domestic product in 1997 to qualify to join the euro, Juppe was forced to back down on the pension plan and his authority never recovered.
He was criticized for an arrogant tone, epitomized by his use of the cavalry phrase, “I am upright in my boots” to signify his conscience was clear when an investigative weekly revealed that Juppe and his son lived in subsidized Paris city housing.
Praised by Chirac as “the best among us”, Juppe lost a general election in 1997. He was later given a suspended prison term and stripped of his civic rights for a year for padding the Paris City Hall payroll with political cronies of Chirac.
He was widely seen as having taken the fall for Chirac, who was immune from prosecution at the time as president but finally received a suspended prison sentence in the same case in 2011.
Juppe, who once wrote a book about the temptation to give up politics and run away to the splendor of Venice, left France to teach in Canada after his conviction in 2004. But the magnetic pull of political life proved stronger.
On his return, he was re-elected mayor of Bordeaux in 2006 and appointed number two in a reshuffled Sarkozy government in 2010, a move he described as “climbing aboard the Titanic”.
Briefly touted as an alternative candidate if the unpopular Sarkozy decided not to seek a second term, Juppe has remained loyal to the president and been an activist foreign minister, supporting the Arab Spring democracy movements and pressing for international sanctions against Syria and Iran.
Among other centre-right contenders for the premiership, some analysts believe Sarkozy may have to pick Bayrou if he concludes that winning over the former education minister’s voters is his only hope of beating Hollande in the runoff.
Bayrou, 60, a farmer and father of six from the southwestern Bearn region, is making his third presidential bid but has won less support than in 2007. He refused to support Sarkozy in the run-off then and has not yet said who he will back this time.
(Writing by Paul Taylor; Editing by Giles Elgood)
This story was corrected to fix former title of Sapin and age of Aubry.