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Friday, 22 February, 2002, 12:53 GMT
'Big two' square up for French presidency
Lionel Jospin and Jacques Chirac
Jospin and Chirac: Markedly different styles
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By James Coomerasamy
BBC Paris correspondent
The two main contenders have been slowly easing off their gloves for several months, but with Lionel Jospin's official declaration, the countdown to the Chirac v Jospin bout has now begun in earnest.

The real challenge is going to be getting the voters to the ballot boxes

The Gaullist French president and socialist prime minister are far from the only ones standing in the two-round election.

But - despite the strong early showing of the former interior minister, Jean Pierre Chevenement - they are still the front runners in all the opinion polls.

The runoff on 5 May is still most likely to be between this odd couple, who have ruled France together for the past five years, under the system of cohabitation.

The French people know them and their contrasting styles very well and there were no surprises about the way in which they announced they were standing.

Heart or head?

For President Chirac, the buzz word was "passion" - his passion for France and the French.

Lionel Jospin
Lionel Jospin takes a low key approach

Making his declaration in front of the cameras in Avignon last week, he was symbolically positioning himself as the president of all France - not just the Parisian elite - as well as the candidate of the heart.

Lionel Jospin was true to form; the pragmatic, school masterly prime minister sent a fax from his Paris apartment to the AFP news agency, signalling his entry into combat in as understated a way as possible.

The two-page fax was a mission statement calling for a modern and confident France - its implicit message that Jospin is the candidate of the head.

Aside from their words of conviction, the electoral themes of the two sides are also starting to become clear.

Crime and punishment

Jacques Chirac's first major campaign speech was about the fight against crime - an area where he scores higher than Mr Jospin in the polls.

His big idea is called "zero impunity" and is part of a policy that emphasises toughness on crime, rather more than toughness on the causes of crime.

Jacques Chirac
Jacques Chirac outlines his anti-crime plans

The socialists argue he is simply dressing up their existing policies in new, Gaullist clothes and are likely to steer the debate towards the economy - the issue that gets Mr Jospin most animated.

He will point at the jobs created - as he argues - by his government's 35-hour week and youth employment programmes.

The Gaullists will say that unemployment has actually been rising for the past few months.

And what of the corruption allegations that continue to hover over Mr Chirac?

After years of being mentioned in the French press, they may play a role in voters' intentions, but probably not a decisive one.

Apathy rules

The real challenge for the candidates is going to be getting the voters to the ballot boxes.

Jean-Pierre Chevenement
Voter disillusionment could favour Mr Chevenement

Opinion polls suggest that as many as two-thirds of them were already bored with the campaign before it even began.

And one of the questions being asked is whether familiarity with the Jospin/Chirac tandem will drive voters towards a fresher, third candidate.

At the moment, that person looks like being Jean Pierre Chevenement, the 62 year-old who's already been a government minister on several occasions.

See also:

21 Feb 02 | Europe
The French presidential choices
05 Feb 02 | Europe
Analysis: Crime or conspiracy?
11 Dec 01 | Europe
France sets election date
14 Jun 01 | Europe
Dirty French campaign kicks off
27 Nov 01 | Europe
Jospin corruption charges dropped
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