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Chirac's Conservatives favored as French campaigning ends

First-round parliamentary voting is Sunday

May 23, 1997
Web posted at: 8:40 p.m. EDT (0040 GMT)

PARIS (CNN) -- French parliamentary candidates wooed a large block of undecided voters Friday in the final hours of campaigning, amid expectations that President Jacques Chirac's conservative forces can withstand an assault from the left.

The country's 40 million voters will cast ballots Sunday in the first round of a two-stage election. More than 6,200 candidates are vying for 577 seats in the National Assembly. In races where no candidate wins a majority, runoffs will be held June 1.

Under French law, campaigning will not be allowed Saturday, the day before balloting.


Chirac, whose conservative coalition controlled 80 percent of the seats in the last parliament, called the election 10 months before constitutionally necessary -- and before the imposition of tough austerity measures needed for France to qualify for the single European currency in 1999.

"I think the main reasons for having called this strange election are really technical reasons," political analyst Olivier Duhamel said. "[Chirac] thought he would get a better result in 1997 than if he waited until 1998."

Voter disenchantment, cynicism remain high

Despite a pounding from Socialists on the left and the National Front on the far right during the 33-day campaign, the conservatives are favored to retain their majority.

But voter disenchantment and cynicism in France runs deep, with as many as 40 percent of voters telling pollsters they had either not decided for whom they would vote or would not vote at all.

A campaign with lackluster candidates largely orchestrated through advertising -- described by one observer as being simultaneously too quick and yet interminable -- didn't lift the voters' mood. One ad agency was advising its candidate clients on both sides of the political aisle to stress "change," whether they were really offering any or not.

"You have to say that you are different, that your program is different and that you're going to do things differently," said advertising executive Laurent Habib.

Juppe undecided about his post

On Friday, conservative Prime Minister Alain Juppe, the favorite target of the opposition because of his failure to cut France's stubbornly high unemployment, said he hasn't decided whether to remain in his post after the election.

Juppe's comment was seen as a last-minute offer to sacrifice himself, if necessary, for the conservative cause.

Also Friday, in an outbreak of violence rare in French campaigns, a National Front leader's bodyguards clashed with human rights activists in the southern town of Vitrolles, which is controlled by the far-right, anti-immigrant party. The bodyguards were accused of firing tear gas at the activists.

At a rally in Paris, the National Front's leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, attacked Chirac for not moving France more forcefully into the future, saying the country was losing its standing in the modern world.

'It's Chirassic Park'

"Today, France, with such a dinosaur ... it's Chirassic Park," said Le Pen.

The Socialists, led by Lionel Jospin, are the strongest force arrayed against the governing conservative coalition. But even Jospin's pledge to cut the French work week from 39 to 35 hours without loss of pay and to create 700,000 jobs hasn't allowed him to catch on with voters.

His supporters hope his reputation for consistency and sincerity will allow Socialists to defy poll predictions, as they did in the 1995 presidential election when Jospin captured a surprising 48 percent of the vote in the second round.

Chirac, however, won that election. And unless there is an upset, his election gamble will apparently work, keeping the conservatives in power through the turn of the century.

Correspondent Jim Bittermann contributed to this report.  

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