France breathes sigh of relief that Mitterrand finally is in race

Finally! President Fran,cois Mitterrand's long awaited announcement Tuesday evening that he would run for reelection was greeted with relief by his supporters, his opponents, and the public.

Finally, supporters rejoiced, we can come out into the open.

Finally, opponents sighed, we have a target to attack.

And finally, the public seemed to say, we can get interested in the upcoming election.

The first round of voting now is only one month away, on April 24, followed on May 7 by a runoff between the two top candidates. Polls show Mitterrand the likely victor in any scenario.

Until now, the campaign has failed to find any focus in this normally politicized country.

In varying degrees, the French public seems to be concerned about unemployment, law-and-order issues, immigration, and European integration.

But none of these issues ignite the public. A survey Sunday in the Paris weekly Journal du Dimanche disclosed that 62 percent of the electorate described the current campaign as ``not interesting.''

President Mitterrand's televised announcement likely ended this apathy.

The Socialist President painted a stark picture of the choice facing the country: Mitterrand or chaos.

The President said he was the only candidate able to ensure the country of ``civil peace.'' Otherwise, he argued, France will be ``taken over by intolerant spirits, by parties that want everything, by clans, by groups'' seeking to ``exercise their domination on the country, at the risk of ripping the social fabric.''

Although he did not name him, the 71-year-old President's attacks seemed directed at his challenger, Prime Minister Jacques Chirac. In recent weeks, Mr. Chirac has pulled ahead of the other main conservative candidate, former prime minister Raymond Barre.

``Mitterrand has designated Chirac as his unique adversary,'' wrote Serge July, editor of the daily Liberation. ``He is constructing an anti-Chirac front in which Barre's bitter troops would be invited to take their place.''

To Mitterrand's supporters, the strategic aim is to occupy the center ground.

On television, the President promised not to renationalize industries that have been privatized since 1986.

He also promised not to dissolve the National Assembly if he is elected, but to name a prime minister who could preside over a centrist majority.

For the conservatives, the goal now is to make Mitterrand seem a threat to compromise and continuity. Chirac immediately denounced the President for ``using language of rare violence'' in his television appearance.

Chirac's conservative party holds a majority in Parliament. He says he won't continue to serve under a reelected Mitterrand. Chirac asks how Mitterrand will govern without him.

Chirac's the warning is clear: A vote for Mitterrand means a vote for confrontation and muddle.

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