Four weeks to go, presidential race still wide open

25th March 2007, Comments 0 comments

PARIS, March 25, 2007 (AFP) - With four weeks ahead of election day France's presidential campaign began in earnest this weekend, with polls showing the race is wide open for the two front-runners, right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Segolene Royal.

PARIS, March 25, 2007 (AFP) - With four weeks ahead of election day France's presidential campaign began in earnest this weekend, with polls showing the race is wide open for the two front-runners, right-winger Nicolas Sarkozy and Socialist Segolene Royal.

Latest indications suggest that the challenge from the "third man" in the election -- Francois Bayrou of the centrist Union for French Democracy (UDF) -- may have peaked, as he has fallen back in opinion polls to around 18 percent of the multi-candidate first round vote.

However in an absorbing contest that has already seen sharp swings in voting intentions, all three leading candidates -- as well as far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen -- are fighting hard to secure a place in the decisive second round.

In two ballots on Sundays April 22 and May 6, France is electing a successor to Jacques Chirac, 74, who has been in office since 1995 and two weeks ago announced that he will not run for a third term.

The vote is seen as one of the most exciting and important in recent French history, marking the transfer of the baton to a new generation of leaders and defining the country's response to issues of globalisation and national identity.

Sarkozy, 52, the hyperactive head of the ruling Union for a Popular Movement (UMP), has campaigned for a "rupture" -- or clean break -- from the policies of past governments, calling for financial incentives to encourage work, curbs on union powers and a new policy of selective immigration.

On Monday he steps down from the post of interior minister, which he has held for four of the last five years. During this time he claims to have successfully brought down crime, but he was also in charge during the 2005 riots and he is openly hated in the high-immigration suburbs.

Royal, 53, was an little-known former junior minister before she shot to fame last year in a brilliant promotional campaign. Using an Internet forum and nationwide "participative debates," she convinced many that she is a new kind of politician, with a listening ear and disdain for party taboos.

In her 100-point "presidential pact" Royal marked herself clearly on the left with pledges to create half a million state-backed jobs, increase the minimum wage and "consolidate" the 35-hour week. If elected she would be France's first woman president.

Bayrou, 55, has surged in the opinion polls in recent weeks as Royal appeared to stumble. A former Latin teacher who raises horses at his home in the Pyrenees, he positions himself as an outsider representing the broad centre of the electorate that is tired of the left-right divide.

Polls show that Bayrou would win the election if he made it through to round two, but the chances of that receded last week as his first round rating fell. Analysts said the public was looking more critically at his programme and at his lack of support in parliament, where the UDF has just 30 deputies.

According to one survey on Friday, Royal has pulled back ahead of Bayrou and is now even on level pegging with Sarkozy. The CSA poll for Le Parisien newspaper put Royal and Sarkozy both on 50 percent in the decisive second round -- the socialist's best score since January.

Uniting the three front-runners is the calculation that to win a candidate must pose as opponent of France's status-quo. All accept the premise that the country is in crisis thanks to an underperforming economy and angst over a world increasingly dominated by "Anglo-Saxon" free market ideas.

Nine other candidates propose radical solutions to the same problems. Le Pen, the 78-year-old leader of the National Front, is fighting his fifth election, promising to halt immigration and defend French jobs by protectionism.

In addition there are three Trotskyite candidates, a Communist, a Green and the anti-capitalist campaigner Jose Bove. The last two runners are a hunters' party candidate who champions rural interests and the Catholic nationalist Philippe de Villiers.

Copyright AFP

Subject: French news

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