Sunday, Apr 21, 2002
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By Vaiju Naravane
"I am a schoolteacher and I have always held the ideals of the Republic, Liberty, Equality Fraternity in great esteem. I have tried to transmit this to the students I have taught. The accent on equality and fraternity has led me to vote Left. But this time, I admit I am stumped. Sixteen candidates, no real debate over issues, a very poor performance by most of our leaders despite the number of contestants, the choice is poor and I am flummoxed. I think I shall vote for the Greens in the first round and for the Socialists in the second," he says.
Marie-Chantal Dellanoy, a 50-year-old housewife, is no happier. Coming from a deeply religious family she has always voted for the Right, demonstrating in favour of state support for religious schools, for the right of employers to hire and fire employees. This time around she too is stumped. "We all know that Jacques Chirac is less than honest, to put it mildly. I could never vote for the extreme right wing with their anti-foreigner bias. For me, God created all men equal and it is our duty to help the poor. The other candidates on the right are too soft or too radical. There are too many candidates and they are all mediocre. I think I shall vote for the former Education Minister, Francois Bayrou, in the first round and for Chirac in the second," she says.
With over a third of the electorate still undecided, the first round of the French Presidential elections on Sunday could yet yield a few surprises. The latest opinion polls predict a second-round photo finish between the incumbent Conservative President, Jacques Chirac, and his nearest rival, the outgoing Socialist Prime Minister, Lionel Jospin. A record 16 candidates are in the fray, representing opinion ranging from the extreme left to the extreme right, with a dotting of centrists, ecologists both from the Left and the Right, ultra-liberals and anti-globalisation die-hards.
No candidate is likely to win over 21 per cent of the vote in the first round. The anti-foreigner National Front candidate, Jean Marie Le Pen, whose vigorous campaign equating high crime rates with the presence of foreigners has found favour with the working classes, is tipped to win 14 per cent of the vote.
The campaign has been singularly dull with a total absence of genuine debate or issues. European construction in which France has played a major role is entirely absent. Every candidate has promised to reduce taxes, improve health care and invest in education. The single dominant theme has been curbing crime and insecurity.
Strict electoral laws oblige the media to devote equal time and space to each candidate and this has made for fragmented reporting. The candidates have declined to take part in televised debates. "The absence of debate has left many people confused. Previously you had an hour-long debate between the two leading candidates and you got a good idea of their personalities, the issues and their policies. Now there is no face-to-face combat.
Only sneaky snide remarks, indirect and indecent attacks made during election meetings," says a disgusted Jean-Louis.
Mr. Chirac, 69, has the gift of the gab, loves meeting people and is an effective campaigner. Mr. Jospin, uncomfortable in public and clearly lacking the common touch, has run an incoherent, defensive campaign that has turned many voters off.
For the past five years, the two men have been locked into a unique power-sharing exercise known in France as "cohabitation" under which the President and Prime Minister belong to opposing political families. Political observers say the last, prolonged bout of cohabitation has left Mr. Chirac a weakened President. They feel the real indication of where France is heading will come next June when the French vote for a new parliament.
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