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French Voters Flirt With the Fringes

Politics: Bored with top contenders Chirac and Jospin, 60% look to alternatives in today's presidential election.


PARIS — As the front-runners stumbled toward France's presidential election today, a dissatisfied electorate turned much of its attention to a cast of protest candidates who don't seem to have a prayer of winning.

It is still likely that President Jacques Chirac and his main challenger, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, will emerge from the first round and compete in a runoff May 5. The voters sense that, according to polls, and slightly favor Chirac in an eventual second-round contest with Jospin.

But only about 40% of the voters plan to cast first-round ballots for either of the two veteran politicians. The public's familiarity with the suave Chirac, 69, and the solemn Jospin, 64, has bred boredom--if not contempt. Their anticipated share of the vote has declined in recent days.

And the fringe candidates are coming on strong. Unhappy with traditional leaders, the French are casting about for alternatives among a record 16 aspirants. But the politics of the outsiders tends toward the extremist, quixotic and downright outdated, suggesting that their appeal is largely symbolic and that this society remains profoundly resistant to change.

"There is no candidate who truly incarnates change," said Pierre Giacometti of Ipsos, a top polling company here. "The voters are bored. Their relationship with politics is distant, especially the young. And the French are still very attached to the idea of the state, of public benefits, state-run companies. There's a real distrust of globalization and economic liberalism."

Although leaders pushing privatization and globalization have remade the political landscape in Britain, Spain and other European countries, France has no major candidate in the classic free-market mode. Chirac is considered right of center, but he's no cheerleader for globalization--he and the center-left Jospin joined forces as stolid holdouts at a European Union summit last month when every other country wanted to open the region's energy markets.

Jospin and Chirac have spent the last five years as uneasy partners, with Chirac as head of state and Jospin's Socialists running the government. Voters complain that this arrangement, known as "cohabitation," stifles progress and blurs already limited differences between the two platforms.

Looking for an edge, Chirac plays up his credentials as a confident representative of France on the world stage. He calls Jospin ineffectual in the face of an alarming rise in crime--probably the decisive issue in the campaign.

Aware that the French find Chirac charming and "presidential" but less than trustworthy, Jospin emphasizes his reputation for integrity and takes credit for a decline in unemployment from 12% to 9% since he took office in 1997.

Nonetheless, the first round has shaped up as an opportunity for voters to make a statement. They have quite a roster of ideologies and personalities from which to choose a messenger.

There's the grizzled Jean-Marie Le Pen of the far-right National Front, a former paratrooper who garnered 15% of the vote for president in 1995. Le Pen, 73, blames crime on immigrants and wants to yank France out of the EU. Toning down his famously aggressive rhetoric and denying the frequent accusation that he is a bigot, Le Pen has surged in the polls, reaching about 14% compared with 18% for Jospin and 22% for Chirac, according to the most recent Ipsos survey.

Le Pen's chances of squeaking into the second round are slim. But it's hard to predict what his followers and other protest voters will do in an eventual runoff, Giacometti said.

The fact that another maverick, perennial Trotskyite contender Arlette Laguiller, registers about 10% of the intended vote doesn't mean that one-tenth of the electorate dreams of a proletarian revolution or can even be counted as a sure left-wing vote.

Rather, Laguiller's unabashedly unglamorous manner has struck a chord with hip leftist intellectuals. People like the 62-year-old retired bank clerk and representative to the largely symbolic European Parliament because of her steadfast commitment to her ideals.

"She has run for president five times, so everybody knows her," Giacometti said. "She's seen as an emblem of protest and dependability at a time of a crisis of political representation."

It's another sign of the cantankerous political mood that the man trailing "Arlette," as everyone calls her, is a gloomy Gaullist. Jean-Pierre Chevenement, once a defense and interior minister for the Socialists, appeals to nostalgic nationalists with his vision of a France dragged down by lawlessness, meddlesome EU bureaucrats and that all-purpose political demon, U.S. imperialism.

Bringing up the rear are an ecologist, a proponent of the hunting and fishing lobby, and an assortment of leftists and rightists.

The rowdiest entertainment has come from the standard-bearer of the Union for French Democracy, centrist Francois Bayrou. As cameras rolled in Strasbourg recently, he faced down hecklers and slapped a youngster who allegedly tried to pick his pocket.

Slow-motion replays of the resounding slap gave Bayrou a boost among frustrated viewers who believe that criminals are running amok in the country. Complicating that scrappy image, though, Bayrou was hit with a couple of hurled pies at a subsequent campaign stop.

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