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French Presidential Race Neck and Neck : Election: Today's balloting pits Socialist Lionel Jospin against conservative Jacques Chirac, who appears to have a slight edge.


PARIS — After 14 years of President Francois Mitterrand's rule, French voters will choose a new occupant for the Elysee Palace today, ushering in what they expect will be a new era with either conservative Jacques Chirac or Socialist Lionel Jospin.

Pollsters say the race for the seven-year presidential term remains very close, with Chirac appearing to have a slight edge. But the race has been characterized by widespread voter disenchantment with both candidates, and the winner will be under pressure early on to raise wages, provide jobs for the 3.3 million unemployed and halt the general decline in France's quality of life.

A Chirac victory would give conservatives full control of the levers of power in France. Having won firm control of the lawmaking National Assembly in 1993, the conservatives would have the executive power as well, heralding what some analysts believe would be a sharp rightward turn in politics.

A Jospin victory, on the other hand, would throw the political scene into turmoil. Jospin has said he would dissolve the National Assembly and call new elections, hoping for a Socialist victory there. If he didn't get that legislative victory, Jospin would be forced to choose a conservative prime minister, and the resulting "cohabitation" would make it difficult, if not impossible, for him to carry out his domestic agenda.

The 40 million registered voters face a choice between two members of the political Establishment.

Jospin, a 57-year-old former professor with curly white hair and rimless glasses, took over the reins of the Socialist Party when Mitterrand was elected in 1981, and he later served as education minister. Chirac, mayor of Paris for the past 18 years, is a tall, flamboyant 62-year-old former prime minister who has twice run unsuccessfully for president.

Although at opposing ends of the ideological spectrum, both candidates have campaigned on platforms of change, trying to cast themselves as fresh faces on the political scene.

And yet, in a way, both are incumbents, representing parties and policies of the left and right that have contributed to the 12.3% unemployment rate and the recent rash of political corruption scandals.

Chirac's conservative followers have held legislative power for two years, led by Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, who narrowly lost his own bid for the presidency to Chirac and Jospin in the first round of voting April 23. Jospin's party, meanwhile, has been represented in the power elite by Mitterrand for two consecutive presidential terms.

Chirac's most powerful argument has been that France does not want another seven years of a Socialist presidency, and he repeated that theme several times last week during the lone televised debate between the two candidates. At one point, smiling and shaking his head in wonderment, he told Jospin, "That's so Socialist."

"Don't have a short memory," Chirac urged his supporters at a campaign rally in Lyon last week. And he warned darkly of the chaos that would be created by a Socialist president and a new round of parliamentary elections.

Jospin, on the other hand, has argued that the conservatives have had their chance to heal France's economic and social troubles and have failed. He has called Chirac "a conservative of the old generation" and warns of growing labor strikes if his opponent is elected.

Economists say, though, that the two men's proposals are not that far apart, which may leave voters to make their choice based on image more than substance. If that is the criterion, both candidates have a lot of ground to make up, judging from the anti-Establishment tone of the first round of voting.

In that round, among nine candidates, Jospin won 23.3% and Chirac 20.8%, with most of the rest of the votes going to fringe candidates in what analysts have seen as protest votes.

In all, 60% of the votes last month went to right-wing or right-of-center candidates, which would seem to give Chirac an advantage. And the last published polls gave him a 10-percentage-point lead, with a fifth of the voters still undecided.

French law prohibits publication of polls in the last week of the campaign, but polls published in recent days in Switzerland, and others done privately by the candidates, suggest the race is a dead heat.

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