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Tuesday, 12 March, 2002, 05:40 GMT
Chirac and Jospin square up
Lionel Jospin (left) and Jacques Chirac
Plans for a polite campaign have got off to a bad start
The two front-runners in France's presidential race have deviated from a civilised debate on policy issues, launching an exchange of personal attacks.

At the weekend, the current front-runner in France's presidential race, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, said his main rival, current President Jacques Chirac, was "tired, ageing, worn down and passive".

I, personally, find it unpleasant and very disturbing that the president of the republic cannot respond to a summons by a judge

President Jacques Chirac
The 69-year-old president reacted furiously, and on Monday, speaking on prime-time television, criticised the tactics of his 64-year-old Socialist rival.

"The French people deserve something else, a real debate worthy of a democracy," Mr Chirac said on France-2 television.

Mr Chirac said the comments were offensive: "At first I smiled, but then, to be honest, I didn't smile - not for my sake, for that of the French people."

Constitutional constraints

In an interview to the daily Le Figaro, Mr Chirac said the left was reviving charges of illegal party funding during his 18 years as Paris mayor "to blacken a politician's name because they can't fight him any other way".

He said he wanted to clear his name, but has been unable to because because the separation of powers required by the constitution prevented him from answering judges' questions.

French President Jacques Chirac
Chirac: Jospin says he is old and tired
"I, personally, find it unpleasant and very disturbing that the president of the republic cannot respond to a summons by a judge," Mr Chirac said.

"Many French people didn't understand my position, didn't understand why I didn't want to respond to a judge like any other French person," he said.

"The constitution doesn't allow a head of state to be heard by a judge.

"We have to change it," he said. "But I don't have the right to question it or ignore it."

Crime issue

Mr Jospin continues to enjoy a slight lead over Mr Chirac in the opinion polls, after France's Gaullist President began his re-election campaign in what many considered to be a lacklustre fashion.

He has placed much emphasis on the need to tackle crime, but without convincing people that his ideas about how to do so are different from Mr Jospin's.

Of the other candidates, only two seem to be mounting a serious challenge at this stage - the former Socialist minister turned defender of republican values, Jean-Pierre Chevenement, and the veteran far-right leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen.

But Mr Le Pen says he may not get enough signatures from local officials to even take part in the ballot and this election still looks like it will be a two-horse race.

The BBC's James Coomarasamy
"Mr Jospin fired the first round in this mud slinging skirmish"
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