Marseille — Against a background of huge draping red, white, and blue flags, thunderous applause from a 20,000-strong audience and the thick haze of a protester's smoke bomb, "citizen candidate" Valery Giscard d'Estaing jauntily leaps onto the podium with the confident air of a contender fully caught up with the challenge and excitement of France's presidential campaign trail.
Only his colloquial "Salut Marseille" seems a bit too forced for the astute pinstriped technocrat who has served as president of France for the past seven years and is now energetically seeking a second term.
Giscard, who normally assumes an aloof regal bearing whether speaking on television or dining with foreign dignitaries has always found it difficult to be "one of the people." In recent years, he has been severely criticized by opponents for trying to turn his sejour at the Elysee Palace into a monarchic presidency with a blatant disregard for the country's democratic institutions including the press. This has been illustrated by his unconcerned reaction to the Bokassa diamond affair.
Despite his obvious self-assurance and eloquent speechmaking, Giscard is in trouble. As Giscard the politician, he is now being forced to excel on all fronts to glean as many votes as possible from a strikingly resigned electorate generally disappointed by the lack of new faces on the political scene. Only a few weeks ago, in what looked like a boring replay of the 1974 presidential elections, it was almost a foregone conclusion even among his staunchest critics that Giscard would at a pinch still manage to retain the presidency.
Now people are not so sure. If France's abundant polls are to be believed -- there were no less than five opinion surveys with differing results conducted last week --Giscard has been losing ground steadily. The last poll taken before the April 26 election gave Giscard a narrow 50.5 percent to 49.5 percent lead over Socialist leader Franois Mitterrand.
His main political danger however, does not appear to lie with Mitterrand, a third-time presidential candidate who no longer seems to hold the sort of vigorous inspiration younger voters would have preferred to see, but with Gaullist Jacques Chirac, the ambitious mayor of Paris.
"Suddenly," noted one observer at the Giscard rally here, "the president's camp has gotten very very worried." Campaign organizers are now stepping up Giscard's public appearances to counter Chirac's hectic schedule. The "citizen candidate" himself is going to great lengths to explain to the nation the achievements of his past seven years in office.
Pointing out that France is today the world's third largest military power, the second largest agricultural exporter, and together with the United States, the most important industrial nuclear country, Giscard loudly proclaims: "To make France a great and respected nation as I have been trying to do with your mandate is like a house, we have now built the foundations. We must start work on the floors."
Although the polls forecast a final standoff between Giscard and Mitterrand in the second round May 10, chirac is expected to the hold the cards.
Chirac's present showing has already put him in the position to dictate terms to either candidate in exchange for his support. This is most likely to be Giscard. Many left-wing voters who claim they will support Chirac during the first round however, are expected to vote Mitterrand in the second. But Chirac is making it quite clear that he still intends to be present in the second round.
What has emerged in numerous conversations with farmers, workers, shopkeepers , teachers, and businessmen during my travels through France is the profound desire for change. Although cynics feel little will alter under a new administration, whether Socialist or Chiracian, many French, including those who claim they will vote Giscard through lack of an alternative, are disenchanted with the present problems of inflation, unemployment and what they consider to be a lack of orientation.
Frenchmen commonly refer to their country as being a "blocked society." Where individual initiative is all too often crushed by central government. This has caused a great deal of frustration.
Without losing what they have achieved in the way of material living such as cars, private homes, television sets, and vacations, the French would like to see a breath of fresh air replace those who have been in power for the past 20 years.