French vote: many candidates, little excitement

Record-low turnout is expected for Sunday's election as 16 candidates vie for presidency.

Never before have French voters had such a rich and varied choice of presidential candidates from which to pick. And never before has the choice inspired so little interest.

When they go to the polls Sunday for the first round of presidential elections, voters will find a record 16 names on their ballot sheets, offering hopefuls from the extreme right to the revolutionary left, and everything in between.

None of them, however, has caught the popular imagination. And with polls showing that only two men have a chance of making it through to the decisive second round in early May, there is little sense of suspense.

That, despite the fact that the two front runners – the conservative incumbent President Jacques Chirac and Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin – are neck and neck in the polls.

"We have never seen such weak interest in a presidential campaign," says Pascal Perrineau, head of the Center for the Study of French Political Life. "The French are just skeptical spectators of the debate."

As many as 33 percent of the electorate will not even bother to turn out on Sunday, according to a recent opinion poll, marking a record abstention rate in a country where voting is regarded as a major civic duty.

And of those who do vote, around 60 percent are expected to choose one of the candidates who has no hope of election. That means that only just over a quarter of the whole electorate will be sharing their support between Mr. Chirac and Mr. Jospin.

The lack of enthusiasm that these two have generated has left enormous opportunities for all sorts of alternative candidates to attract the protest vote from citizens fed up with what they see as the same old same old.

Running third in the polls, for example, is veteran extreme right winger Jean Marie Le Pen, whose anti-immigrant, "France for the French" rhetoric, is attracting 12 percent of the electorate.

Close behind him – but from the opposite end of the political spectrum – is another candidate who has been running in presidential races for nearly 30 years, the Trotskyite revolutionary communist Arlette Laguiller.

Repeated political corruption scandals in recent years has fostered deep mistrust of mainstream politicians, suggests Mr. Perrineau. "For many voters, the question is not whether a candidate is capable of running the country, but whether he is a vehicle to express hatred of the system," he says.

Chirac is the candidate most likely to suffer from the taint of corruption. Considerable evidence has emerged of his personal involvement in illegal party financing through kickbacks from contractors while he was mayor of Paris.

The Socialists, however, have made less of the corruption allegations than they might have done, partly because Jospin was discovered last year to have lied repeatedly about his membership in a small Trotskyite group during his youth.

Most voters appear to be discounting the honesty issue.

Chirac and Jospin are also having difficulty distinguishing themselves from one another, after five years of working together in reasonable harmony, despite belonging to opposing political parties.

Both have called for stronger law and order, responding to public concern about rising crime; both have offered moderate reforms to a public pension scheme that is running out of money; both are in favor of closer European integration.

Since both are incumbents, neither can ride a "throw the rascals out" wave of discontent with the government. Under the French system, the government, led by Jospin at the head of a left-wing majority in parliament, is responsible for most areas of policy while the president enjoys preeminence in defense and foreign affairs.

Predictions as to who will win the runoff election on May 5th are complicated by the way in which the traditional left-right cleavage in French politics has been scrambled in recent years by other divisions, notably over how open the country should be to trends such as globalization.

Voters for both extreme-right and extreme-left candidates share a mistrust of such tendencies, and of government moves to position France more clearly in the mainstream of international business. Nostalgia for the days when Paris enjoyed more economic and political sovereignty cuts across party lines, and few pollsters are willing to call the second round results with any confidence since nobody is sure where the losing candidates' votes will go.

"The only predictable outcome of these elections is a record rate of abstention," says Perrineau, "which will make the crisis of political representation more striking than ever." Beyond that, he says, the outlook is "extremely uncertain."

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