Imagine a middle-of-the-road US president, able to serve seven years at a time and now seeking seven more. His critics say he is haughty, imperious. The Constitution gives him the power to dissolve Congress, set its agenda, rule by decree, bypass Congress if necessary, and appoint the governors of all 50 states. He heavily influences radio and TV, both of which are state-owned.
Inflation and unemployment are both high. Three rivals oppose him on his right, and two more, plus a stage comedian and a score of lesser lights, on his left.
Can he win his second term?
The scenario, and the question, describe France today. The president is tall , slim Valery Giscard d'Estaing. The election is April 26, with a runoff May 10 .
And the answer seems to be yes, Giscard can win, barely -- by about the same razor-thin 1.6 percent margin that defeated Socialist Party leader Franois Mitterrand in 1974.
"Giscard should win, Mitterrand could win," sums up one diplomatic observer in this city of bridges, history, and soaring architecture, now beginning to pick up pace at the end of winter.
The formal election campaign is about to open, but Paris has been knee-deep in political gossip, speculation, and forecasts for months.
Many French experts predict that the combined vote of the right will be about 45 percent on the first ballot, and the left about 47 percent. But when the top two contenders go through to the runoff, Giscard as of this writing is expected to cling to office.
Foreign policy doesn't seem to be an issue this time: France will stay out of NATO's military structure, but under the NATO political umbrella, no matter who wins. The Reagan administration has little change to worry about, sources say, from Giscard or even from Mr. Mitterrand.
Last Nov. 19, a SOFRES poll in the Paris morning paper Le Figaro showed Giscard defeating Mitterrand by 59 to 41 percent. Political insiders shrugged in disbelief.
Sure enough, on Jan. 21 this year, the same SOFRES poll had narrowed the gap: Giscard was ahead by a bare 51-49 percent on the final runoff vote. The insiders stopped shrugging and nodded instead.
Only one poll so far has given Mitterrand a slight edge, but that finding has not reappeared.
Giscard himself has not yet declared his candidacy: Critics say he is holding off until the last moment so that he can campaign unofficially by using the President's unlimited access to French TV. The unusually lavish pomp and ceremony with which Giscard has just welcomed Egyptian President Anwar Sadat to Paris is seen as an example: Sadat is a popular figure throughout France.
The pro-Giscard bloc argues that France is prosperous compared to other European countries such as Britain and Italy, even though it has been affected by the worldwide industrial recession and remains almost wholly dependent on imported oil.
They say Giscard offers experience -- he has been near or at the top of French political life for almost 20 years. He represents continuity, stability, authority.
Yet Giscard is not without problems. The right attacks him for being too weak and indecisive at home and abroad; the left rips into him for an alleged desire to turn himself into an almost imperial figure -- dictatorial, aloof, disdainful.
He is attacked for evasive answers on the gift of diamonds from the deposed Emperor Jean-Bedel Bokassa of the Central African Empire. The largely left-wing journalistic community buzzes with stories of how he has influenced the appointment of this and that senior publishing and broadcast figure. The left is angry that stage comedian Coluche (Michel Colucci) disappeared from state- run TV and radio for months after announcing his own candidacy as a way of poking fun at the system.
Experts here say the swing vote in a French election is very small -- between 2 and 5 percent, even this year when some 3 million new voters will appear (the result of lowering the voting age to 18). "The trouble is," quips one foreign diplomat, "55 percent of French voters think they are in the 5 percent."
Main declared candidates so far: on the right, mayor of Paris and former Giscard man Jacques Chirac (head of the Gaullist Party); former Premier Michel Debre; and Marie-France Garaud, former aide to Georges Pompidou.
On the left: Socialist leader Mitterrand and Communist leader Georges Marchais, whose party is still feuding with the Socialists following the break in late 1977 over how far to push nationalization.