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Wednesday, 3 April, 2002, 12:50 GMT 13:50 UK
French election draws 17 contenders
Far-right leader Jean-Marie Le Pen is pelted with eggs as he hands in his papers
Opponents pelted Le Pen with eggs
The race for the French presidency has been narrowed to 17 candidates who say they have got the 500 signatures necessary to go forward to the first round of elections.

The latest polls have the two favourites - President Jacques Chirac and Prime Minister Lionel Jospin - each receiving about 20% of the vote for the first stage later this month.

Far-right veteran Jean-Marie Le Pen will also stand for the presidency, after he announced that he had secured the necessary signatures from elected officials across France.

French President Jacques Chirac
Chirac faces sleaze allegations

The deadline for endorsements of presidential candidates to be handed in to France's constitutional council has now passed and will be followed by voting on 21 April and 5 May.

If the council accepts all the entrants, it will be the largest field ever for a French presidential election.

Only two candidates - likely to be Mr Chirac and Mr Jospin - will proceed to the second round.

Close polls

Two opinion polls on Wednesday put Mr Jospin four points ahead of Mr Chirac in a head-to-head fight, with 52% support to 48%.

A third poll had Mr Chirac ahead with 51%.

Support for Mr Le Pen, 73, stood at more than 10%, putting him and his National Front party in third place.

A BBC correspondent in Paris said Mr Le Pen has been loudly accusing Mr Chirac's supporters of trying to sabotage his campaign.

Some people suspect he has been cultivating the role of victim to improve his own election chances.

Sleaze claims

New sleaze allegations against Mr Chirac have surfaced in the French press.

The weekly Le Canard Enchaine said a draft official inquiry report found Mr Chirac had spent $1.2m on food for his apartment - not official functions - in the last eight years of his term.

That would amount to personal food expenses of about $500 a day when he was Mayor of Paris.

The fresh produce account alone could have supplied crates of apples every day, the paper said.

Some of the bills were listed as having been paid up to five times and cash was used for the majority of transactions, according to the report.

See also:

02 Apr 02 | Europe
French election: Where they stand
25 Mar 02 | Europe
French town bans parking fines
15 Mar 02 | Europe
Le Pen's election bid in doubt
21 Feb 02 | Europe
The French presidential choices
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