TO the chagrin of France's culture czars, its presidential campaigns have taken on an American tinge that may change national politics forever.
Campaign budgets across France's political spectrum are sapping money away from posters, public tracts, and meetings. More than 30 years after JFK's movie-star flair blew Richard Nixon away in the US presidential debates, French presidential candidates are taking polls and TV seriously -- and adjusting their personal images. Meanwhile, the French state is waging a rear-guard action to limit their influence.
Public-opinion polls, for example, may not be published in French news media from a week before the vote for president -- the first round is April 23 with a runoff on May 7.
The publication ban is a ''political anachronism,'' says Jean-Marc Lech of the Paris-based IPSOS polling firm.
The last polls, published Saturday, confirm the momentum of Paris Mayor Jacques Chirac over Prime Minister Edouard Balladur, a fellow member of the conservative Rally for the Republic party, who was heavily favored until mid-February to win the presidency. Mr. Balladur and Socialist candidate Lionel Jospin are expected to closely contest the No. 2 position in order to make the runoff.
French presidential candidates have long been the despair of media-savvy aides for ignoring polls or refusing to take off glasses in front of cameras. In 1974, conservative candidate Chaban Delmas ignored sinking polls, saying they were manipulated. In 1995, conservative candidate Mr. Balladur has not ignored them.
After his slump in the polls, Balladur shifted his strategy. A widely diffused photograph of the candidate at breakfast, complete with antique silver and designer suit, was intended to humanize Balladur's image but made him seem aristocratic. Such images have been replaced with the campaign slogan, ''Just dou-dou it!'' -- a play on a popular Nike commercial.
''This is the first election where we've seen people in focus groups consistently talking about public-opinion polls,'' says Roland Cayrol, head of the CSA polling institute in Paris. ''But their capacity to recall the campaign program of candidates is weaker than in any election I've covered.''
One week before the first round of voting, the number of undecided voters in a presidential election had never been as high (33 percent). Public opinion polls measured the phenomenon -- and may have caused it.
Wait and see
''Many of these voters are not really undecided,'' Mr. Cayrol adds. ''They plan to watch the official campaign on television and vote on the basis of the relative strength of candidates on the eve of the vote.''
In France, television has been viewed as as much of a threat to democracy as are polls. To restrict TV's influence on a campaign, legislators voted in 1962 to ensure that presidential candidates are equally supported by the state: Each is limited to two hours on radio and two hours on TV -- which are publicly financed -- during a 15-day official campaign.
Rules about use of TV and radio are strictly enforced. Use of the French flag, or any combination of blue, white, and red that suggests the flag, is forbidden, as is the use of the national anthem in the authorized sound tracks. Candidates who are also public officials may not be filmed in their offices during a campaign spot.
But beyond the official campaign, sharp differences persist in how candidates are portrayed on television.
And TV may have played a key role in Mr. Chirac's dramatic rise in popularity over the once-unbeatable prime minister, Balladur. Television news programs began picking up accounts that had already circulated in the written press, which questioned Balladur's personal finances.
''Questions about Balladur's finances [involving the sale of shares in a computer company he used to direct] didn't register until they were picked up on television,'' says pollster Cayrol.
The shift in voter support from Balladur to his opponent, Paris Mayor Chirac, may also have been encouraged by a rubber-faced puppet on the popular satirical program ''Guignols of the News.'' The Guignols, uncannily lifelike puppets representing leading French public figures, appear daily for about five minutes on the private television station Canal-Plus.
Chirac's harsh television image has always been a liability during his 30-year public career. But his Guignols double may have softened it. After Balladur, Chirac's ''friend of 30 years,'' announced he would run against Chirac for the presidency, the Guignols regularly presented Chirac as a likable loser, walking around with a knife in his back.
The program reaches about 10 percent of viewers, but enjoys wide influence.
''Many more can tell us what was said on the Guignols than watch it,'' says Cayrol. ''The images of Chirac with the knife in his back turned up regularly in focus-group discussions.'' CSA polls show that Chirac's image as ''sympathetic'' shifted from 13 to 26 percent from December to April. ''It's rare to see a candidate manage to modify his personal image during a political campaign,'' he adds.