FREJUS, France (AP) _ Culture Minister Francois Leotard, whose squabbles with Premier Jacques Chirac threatened the conservative government with a major crisis, announced Saturday he would remain in the Cabinet but continue to speak out.

Leotard is secretary-general of the centrist Republican Party, one of five small parties that make up the Union for French Democracy. It is aligned with Chirac's conservative Rally for the Republic. The coalition won control of the National Assembly 14 months ago in national elections.

Chirac reprimanded Leotard Tuesday after the culture minister said in an interview he would not support the premier in the first round of the presidential elections next year. Chirac told Leotard that he must ''choose between his duties as a minister and his role as a party militant,'' adding the two were incompatible.

''I am secretary-general of a political party of the (parliamentary) majority. I remain so,'' Leotard said Saturday during a speech at a political rally. That broke five days of silence that had led to speculation he would resign, taking with him a number of sympathetic ministers.

''I am a minister of the government. I remain so,'' Leotard said. ''I have my freedom of speech. I am keeping it, and I will use it to help the government succeed, to win the majority and to help the French people.''

Leotard, 45, leads a group of centrist ministers who have on several occasions been in disagreement with the premier. His resignation would have forced Chirac into a major reorganization of the government.

In the interview that led to Chirac's sharp response, Leotard said either he or former Premier Raymond Barre should be the rightist candidate in the presidential elections.

Barre has been leading Chirac slightly in recent opinion polls. Both candidates, however, trail Socialist President Francois Mitterrand in the polls. None has announced his candidacy.

Speaking to several thousand party members during a celebration of the Republican Party's 10th anniversary, Leotard said: ''I will not take the responsibility for a crisis for which the only person who would be pleased would be Francois Mitterrand.''

Chirac's office said late Saturday there would be no immediate comment on Leotard's declaration, ''neither from the premier, nor his spokesman, nor his entourage.''