Colored disco lights flash. A rousing rock beat blares. The wooden panel proclaims, ``We will Win.'' And the 7,000 spectators fill the Palais des Sports with a deafening rhythmic applause, ``Chi-rac, Pre-si-dent,'' ``Chi-rac, Pre-si-dent.'' Prime Minister Jacques Chirac arrives, smiling, waving, and clasping hands. The crowd explodes. Giant likenesses of him glow on two video screens. Chirac mounts the stage along with two centrist leaders, supporters of his candidacy, and raises his arms in a prizefighter's victory wave.
The high-tech, high-energy rally is part of a desperate, last-ditch attempt to prevent Socialist President Fran,cois Mitterrand from winning a second seven-year term in this Sunday's decisive vote. Conservative neo-Gaullist Chirac finished a distant second in the first round of voting on April 24 with a mere 19.9 percent, worse than expected and about 15 percentage points below Mitterrand.
At stake is the future of French conservatism. Unless Chirac wins or makes at least a respectable showing, his personal political career could be finished and his Rally for the Republic (RPR) Party, inheritor of Charles De Gaulle's legacy, could crack and fade, along with Gaullism, into history. Worse yet, France's divided conservatives could find themselves in the political wilderness for years to come.
``I am scared, I am afraid,'' admits Elisabeth Hubert, a local campaign official from nearby Nantes. ``We haven't been listening to voters ... and we could get crunched.''
Her worries center on the Jean-Marie Le Pen, the extreme-right leader whose anti-immigrant message won 14.4 percent of the first-round vote. Chirac faces a tough squeeze. He needs to make a pitch for Mr. Le Pen's voters without alienating his moderate supporters.
Right-wingers favor appeasement. They say Chirac moved too far to the center by sharing power with the Socialist Mitterrand during the last two years. They want Chirac to take tougher stands on law and order and immigration.
``The Le Pen vote is a protest vote,'' argues Claude Champold, a regional RPR assemblyman in Rennes. ``It is telling the right to go more to the right.''
Moderates are scared by such talk. They demand a firm stand against bigotry. If they don't get it, they threaten to split with Chirac and join a center-left coalition led by a reelected Mitterrand.
``We ... share neither the ideas nor the values of Jean-Marie le Pen,'' Pierre Mehaignerie, president of the Christian Democrats, says at the Rennes rally. ``I am sure, Mr. Prime Minister, that you will confirm these positions.''
Caught in this no-win situation, Chirac comes out fighting. His voice reaches a high pitch. In a pitch for Le Pen votes, he offers to join forces with Frenchmen ``who want our national identity preserved and clandestine immigration fought.''
Yes, he assures Mr. Mehaignerie, ``We are profoundly attached to values which in any case are neither debatable nor negotiable.'' But no, he will not disavow Le Pen's voters.
``They have expressed, in their way, their worries, their disillusionment, their unhappiness,'' Chirac says. ``They are respectable citizens who must be heard.''
Amid the white heat of his rhetoric, past attempts to project a calm, conciliatory image vanish.
Before the first round, Chirac's campaign appearances consisted of cool question-and-answer sessions. At ease in an armchair, he would smile and joke with questioners chosen from the audience. He never raised his voice; he never worked up a sweat. The goal was to smooth his hard reputation for bulldozing down opponents in a raw pursuit of power.
But following his the poor first-round showing, Chirac has returned to old habits. He will make 21 separate appearances in this final week of the campaign, crisscrossing the entire country, north to south, east to west, running, eating, and speaking at lunches, rallies, and auto races, hoping a frantic last-minute rush can mobilize voters.
On the podium, Chirac now stands straight and speaks without notes, thrusting his fists forward.
``Better to appear agitated, hyperactive,'' argues Michel Poteau de la Morandiere, a local RPR militant, ``than to put people asleep.''
Chirac's strongest suit always has been his indefatigable energy. Aides say he listens to three radio shows while shaving at 7 a.m. He is at his desk in the Prime Minister's office by 8:30 a.m., even this past Saturday. Three hours later, he breaks off for the campaign. His first appointment is a luncheon in Nantes with local conservatives.
Chirac charges through his terrine de poisson and canard `a l'artichaut. Before desert, he gives a half-hour impromptu speech. Then he sits down, stuffs himself with a few chunks of strawberry tart. Before he finishes, he offers a wave, and disappears on his way to his next appointment in Rouen.
Even when his campaigning finishes late in the evening in Rennes, Chirac doesn't slow down. He returns to his office at the Paris City Hall, where he works on municipal affairs until 2 a.m. Such can-do drive took Chirac to his present prominence.
He took the old Gaullist barons who had been with the General since the war and united them with a new generation of younger conservatives.
At 55, Chirac is poised between the two generations, and admirers say he is the only man who can bridge the wide gap. But detractors say he is wedged between warring factions. ``Chirac can run, run, and run, but he will never become a statesman like Mitterrand,'' argues Jean-Marie Bockel, a former Socialist minister, ``able to calm France and lead her through troubled waters.''
For now, Chirac refuses to slow down and admit defeat. In Rennes, he speaks for two straight hours.
When he finishes, he doesn't look tired. He takes the hands of two young girls and leads the crowd in a stirring version of the French National Anthem, the Marseilleise.
``Fight, fight, France,'' runs the refrain.
Jacques Chirac may be behind. But he will not go down without a battle.