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'Little' candidates winning hearts

French are unenthusiastic about either Jospin (left) or Chirac
French are unenthusiastic about either Jospin (left) or Chirac  

By CNN European Political Editor Robin Oakley

PARIS, France (CNN) -- With less than a week to go to Sunday's first-round voting in the French presidential election, pollsters are finding it impossible to separate the two principal contenders -- conservative incumbent Jacques Chirac and Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin.

But with neither currently mustering more than 20 percent support, the two contenders expected to enter the final runoff round of the presidential contest on May 5 would do so with less support behind them than any pair of presidential finalists in history.

The French say you can vote with your heart in the first round; you only need to vote with your head in the second.

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So with the electorate bored by a re-run between the principals of the 1995 contest, the 14 so-called "little" candidates who cannot hope to progress to the second round are expected to take up to 60 percent of the first round vote collectively.

Prominent among them are Arlette Laguiller, the Trotskyist Workers Struggle candidate, suddenly in fashion after fighting presidential elections since 1974, Jean-Marie Le Pen, ageing leader of the right-wing National Front, and Jean-Pierre Chevenement, a "France First" candidate who has three times resigned from Socialist governments.

Others expected to make their mark include Jean Saint Josse, leader of the Chasseurs (hunters), Pecheurs (fishermen), Nature et Tradition movement, the CPNT, which has widened its appeal from a country sports preservation party to capitalise on a feeling in village France that politics is dominated by city slickers who don't care about rural decline.

In 1999 European Parliament elections, the CPNT surprised everybody by taking 1.2 million votes and winning six seats in Parliament.

Falling back still further is the once mighty Communist Party, which used to take 20 percent of the vote in French elections. It has been in decline for some years, and leader Robert Hue has not been helped by Communist participation in the Jospin government.

Before the contest began, Jospin was expected to maintain a lead over Chirac -- who is now 69 and mired in allegations of corruption over kickbacks to his RPR party when he was mayor of Paris and expense claims.

Chirac has been depicted in a popular TV puppet show Les Guignols d'Info as "Supermenteur," (Super-liar). But his campaigners have become relaxed about the series, with the public seemingly amused rather than shocked by the amiable rogue portrayed.

Although he enjoys respect as a hard-working and long-serving prime minister, Jospin's stiff personal manner has proved a handicap, while Chirac's outgoing personality has helped induce a Gallic shrug of indifference over the corruption claims and give him a narrow lead in some polls.

Campaign focus on crime

Since Chirac has frequently changed his political colours and has no particular achievements to point to in his past seven years as president, polling evidence indicates that the French have no particular desire to re-elect him.

But it seems they look for an extra quality of style and grandeur in a politician who is to become president rather than prime minister, and Jospin has so far convinced few that he has that extra visionary dimension.

Jospin seems to have suffered more than Chirac from the "cohabitation" of the last five years, which have seen power shared between a conservative president and a Socialist prime minister. With crime and security a major issue in the campaign, Jospin is being blamed for the increasing crime rate more than the president.

Voters who want to vote against the status quo have to reject both of them, which again has contributed to the boost in support for other candidates. So has the similarity in the programmes of the Big Two, as both seek to command the centre ground of French politics.

Life has been harder for Jospin in that the Socialist prime minister was outflanked to the left by a number of other candidates after insisting his was not a Socialist programme and then appeared to recant to a degree as he sought to repair the damage with traditional left supporters.

He has deployed Martine Aubry, daughter of Jacques Delors and a potential Socialist prime minister, to counter the inroads being made by Arlette Laguiller. And Jospin supporters hope that he will come into his own in the second round when voters won't have protest alternatives and will focus more on policy and less on personality.

Commentator Dominic Moisi says the key issue is where the centre votes are going.

"By the end of the day the decision will be made on which face do you want to see least on your TV screen for the next five years," says Moisi. "The one of the president you've seen for the last seven years or the one of the prime minister you've seen for the last five years?"

The French, he says, can't wait for the contest to be over so they can get on with the World Cup.


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