Power of the Poster Persists in Paris

THREE Parisian students stroll past a campaign poster for Socialist presidential candidate Lionel Jospin and without breaking stride, they tear it off the wall.

A researcher in an adjoining office steps outside. ''You know, this wall has changed political character six times in the last week.''

''I don't mind your taking that one,'' he calls out, ''but the one underneath it is [Jean-Marie] Le Pen,'' the extreme-right presidential candidate.

''Don't worry,'' they shoot back. ''We'll come back with one for [Jacques] Chirac,'' referring to the Paris mayor and current front-runner in the race.

Poster wars used to be serious business in a French election campaign, and despite television's rising role, they still hold a special weight here.

Heavily muscled and occasionally armed squads would spend nights pasting up posters for their own candidates and defacing or tearing down those of rivals.

If two squads happened to meet in front of the same wall, the issue of which candidate had the most clout would be settled on the spot. In the morning, citizens could quickly assess the strength of rival camps by noting which posters survived the night.

POSTER squads still circulate the streets of French cities, and fists -- and bullets -- occasionally fly.

Last week Minister of the Interior Charles Pasqua urged police to be more vigilant following recent attacks by and on poster squads and against party headquarters. A young Comoran immigrant was killed in Marseilles Feb. 21 allegedly by a poster squad of Mr. Le Pen.

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