Election rivals start official campaign

10th April 2007, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, April 9, 2007 (AFP) - Official campaigning for France's presidential election kicked off on Monday, with rightwinger Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Segolene Royal narrowly leading the four main contenders.

PARIS, April 9, 2007 (AFP) - Official campaigning for France's presidential election kicked off on Monday, with rightwinger Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Segolene Royal narrowly leading the four main contenders.

Two weeks ahead of the April 22 first round, the race remains wide open, with a record 42 percent of voters -- 18 million people -- still undecided, according to a CSA poll.

The vote is guaranteed to usher in a new generation of leaders at a time when France grapples with high unemployment, sluggish growth and simmering social tension that spilled over into riots in 2005.

From Monday, official rules came into effect for campaign broadcasts, strictly dividing radio and television airtime between all 12 contenders.

Posters went up outside polling stations and the candidates embarked on a hectic series of public rallies and stump meetings which will continue until April 20 at midnight.

Sarkozy, 52, a tough-on-crime former interior minister, is the current favourite ahead of the 53-year-old Royal -- a Socialist mother-of-four who portrays herself as a nurturing figure.

All polls put Sarkozy in the lead for the first round, with around 28-30 percent of voting intentions, and surveys suggest he would easily beat Royal if the pair make it to the run-off vote on May 6.

According to a weekend poll by CSA, 59 percent of the French expect Sarkozy to be the next president.

But Royal faces a tough rearguard battle to secure her own place in the May 6 divider.

The 55-year-old centrist Francois Bayrou -- who polls suggest would beat Sarkozy in a run-off -- is nipping at Royal's heels on around 20 percent compared to her 22-26 percent.

Far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen, who stunned the nation when he made to second place in the 2002 election, is also heading into the final stretch in fighting spirit, credited with between 13 and 16 percent of votes.

The 78-year-old National Front leader repeated Sunday he was confident of making it into a run-off against Sarkozy.

Until now, Sarkozy has kept the upper hand despite swinging the focus of his campaign onto the question of national identity, seen as a ploy to fish for votes among Le Pen supporters.

He sparked a fresh uproar among scientists and the Catholic Church at the weekend for arguing that paedophilia was genetically predetermined -- prompting Royal's camp to demand an explanation on Monday.

Sarkozy's first official campaign broadcast -- broadcast on French public radio and television stations early Monday -- focused on jobs, education, pensions and health.

Royal, in a highly-personal two-minute film, talks directly to the camera of her background, her family situation as her personality as a woman politician.

Each of the 12 candidates has 45 minutes of airtime, divided into three clips of one-, two- and five-and-a-half minutes which will be broadcast in rotation over the next fortnight.

The remaining contenders are the farmer-activist Jose Bove, three Trotskyites, a Communist, a Green, a hunters' candidate who defends the rural way of life, and a Catholic nationalist.

Although none of the eight small candidates is credited with more than three percent of the vote, broadcasters are obliged to equally share out interview time and reports on each campaign.

Some commentators have warned the strict rules risked clouding the debate for undecided voters.

Left-wing newspaper Liberation warned the rules were based on "a neutrality that is as hypocritical as it is fictitious".

"The 12 candidates will have the same space to develop their ideas, when only three of them -- Sarkozy, Royal and Bayrou -- have any chance of applying them as president," it said in an editorial.

France is choosing a successor to Jacques Chirac, 74, the veteran leader who has been in office since 1995. French voters will also choose members of parliament in legislative elections set for June.


Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

0 Comments To This Article