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Friday, 7 September, 2001, 12:55 GMT 13:55 UK
Chirac rides high despite troubles
Lionel Jospin and Jacques Chirac
Jospin looks jittery as Chirac holds firm
By Hugh Schofield in Paris

With the resumption of the political season in France, the race for next year's presidential election has unofficially begun.

And against all the predictions of the bien pensants, there is no question who is emerging as favourite.

Jacques Chirac may be deeply implicated in a series of financial scandals dating from his time as mayor of Paris. He may have been roundly discredited after his disastrous decision to call an early parliamentary election in 1997 - consigning himself to five years of uneasy co-habitation with the Socialists.

Fears about crime hurt Jospin's campaign
But as the polls keep showing, he's got the touch.

According to a new survey in Paris-Match magazine, Mr Chirac's popularity rating went up six points in August to 61%, while Socialist Prime Minister Lionel Jospin's fell two to 52%.

And that was shortly after the latest claims were published in the so-called "cash for tickets" affair, in which he is alleged to have paid out millions of francs in dubiously-acquired money for holidays for his family and friends.

Socialist worries

So there was an unmistakeable air of smugness hanging over his RPR party's end-of-summer universite, or conference, last weekend in the Brittany port of Quimper.

And by the same token the Socialists have been stricken by an untimely case of the jitters.

A president can take credit when the nation is happy, but can as quickly remove himself above the fray when things start to turn

Mr Jospin, who has not officially announced his candidacy for next March's elections but is regarded as almost certain to run, has plenty to worry about.

For a start, the economy has started to falter.

Unemployment, control of which was the Socialists' major achievement, is edging back up, and consumer confidence is flagging.

The rise in crime is now regularly given as the electorate's most pressing concern, and though Mr Jospin can plausibly argue the problem is one of society - not government - there is no question this pre-occupation favours the right.

The cohesion of his own coalition which includes Greens, Communists and Radicals is meanwhile under assault as next year's elections approach.

They need to mark their difference from the Socialists, and so have opened up a regular barrage from the left.

And just to rub it in, Mr Chirac has just managed to walk off with a major victory in his undeclared war with the magistrates looking into his past affairs.

Elysee palace
The two men will battle for the keys to the Elysee palace
One of the most tenacious of the judges has been taken off the case for committing a series of procedural errors.

Of course there are eight months to go, and all to play for.

But Mr Chirac can bank on a permanent truth in French politics: that a president can take credit when the nation is happy, but can as quickly remove himself above the fray when things start to turn. His prime minister will carry the can.

And not once in a French presidential election, Mr Jospin must be reflecting ruefully, has a sitting prime minister managed to topple the incumbent.

See also:

04 Sep 01 | Europe
Chirac corruption inquiry halted
26 Jul 01 | Europe
Another setback for Chirac
18 Jul 01 | Europe
Chirac escapes sleaze questions
14 Jul 01 | Europe
Chirac hits back at critics
28 Sep 00 | Europe
Cheques, lies and videotape
07 Aug 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: France
12 Jul 01 | Media reports
Chirac's 'house on fire'
20 Jul 01 | Europe
Q & A: Chirac's corruption battle
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