Our man in Paris subjects natives to yet another poll

She stood before her cart of wares, warming her hands in front of a portable gas heater, offering political comments with her sausages. "For me, I don't worry about scandals or his charisma [President Valery Giscard d'Estaing's]. Times right now aren't all that bad. I can work at least, I can eat, life is not too bad. That's fine with me. But if things change and unemployment gets worse, then I'll do something."

A rosy-cheeked gentleman waiting for the Metro maintained, "The French want someone efficient. Someone strong and effective. Giscard is the only one who has been strong. I don't care what they say about his image. The scandals they keep bringing up won't play at all."

The French press had exploded in recent weeks with an unending barrage of political polls -- accompanied by twice as many commentaries, charts, and graphs -- assessing the probability of President Giscard d'Estaing's reelection and the possibility of electing Socialist Party leader Francois Mitterrand.

Each "sondage" that appears shows Giscard's lead over Mitterrand narrowing, although the percentage points vary from poll to poll (and paper to paper).

One poll conducted by IFOP, published Jan. 12 in the weekly Le Point, noted Giscard's 20 percent lead in November 1980 had fallen to 10 percent by Christmas. A "sondage" carried out by another polling firm, SOFRES, and published in the Jan. 10 edition of Figaro-Magazine, implied the margin between Giscard and Mitterrand was as narrow as 2 percent in December.

Various percentages have been scattered among the other candidates -- Communist Party leader Georges Marchais, Gaullists Michel Debre and Jacques Chirac, and the comedian Coluche. (This last candidate entered the race as a joke -- but one prominent pollster has estimated that he could pick up 10 percent of the vote.) But the two-round election April 26 and May 10 is realy between President Giscard and Mr. Mitterrand.

"I've grown up seeing Mitterrand for the last 20 years," a store clerk explained. "The Socialist Party, Mitterrand, they've never changed in my life. If someone else becomes president, that's fine, but Mitterrand isn't exciting enough. As for Giscard, well, I don't want him either, but he's the less painful of two pains."

One young professional woman, however, went in altogether the opposite direction. "I think this time Giscard has had it, he's going to lose," she stated firmly, a raw wind off the Seine blowing through her hair. "The polls are right, Mitterrand will take it."

Giscard has been severely criticized at home and abroad for his involvement in the Bokassa diamond affair, for widening rifts in the government coalition, and for his haughty, royal presidency. And the mysterious circumstances surrounding the deaths of three former government ministers have cast a shadow onto his administration.

But the lines of the campaign battles appear to be drawing around other issues: namely, the candidates' perceived ability to deal effectively with domestic problems and maintain the international stature of France.

One observes says Giscard must mobilize the electorate "on the fringes "who might otherwise be tempted to vote for the coluche wild card or even abstain." He also noted the "coincidence" of the tremendous amount of publicity the polls have received and their effect in dramatizing the campaign. "Polls showing Giscard barely ahead may give him the attention he needs."

"I'm not going to vote, but if I did, I suppose it would be for Giscard," one student confessed in a cafe. "I just couldn't bring myself to vote for Mitterrand."

But the flurry of activity and publicity that has surrounded the French presidential campaign has taken its toll. It has created ennui in some segments of the population -- a problem, observers feel, that both candidates will have to reckon with in the spring.

"I've had it up to here," a young woman sighed, throwing her hands up in the air. "There was a time when I was interested in the possibility of [Michel] Rocard [who briefly challenged Mitterand's leadership of the Socialist Party], but now it just doesn't interest me. I read the papers, but skip the politics. My friends and I don't even discuss the election any more. It all started too early."

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