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Friday, 5 April, 2002, 06:37 GMT 07:37 UK
Record slate for French election
Jean-Marie Le Pen
Right-winger Le Pen is running for the fourth time
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By William Horsley
BBC European Affairs Correspondent
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The presidential election campaign in France has started in earnest.

The candidates
Francois Bayrou
Olivier Besancenot
Christine Boutin
Jean-Pierre Chevenement
Jacques Chirac
Daniel Gluckstein
Robert Hue
Lionel Jospin
Arlette Laguiller
Corinne Lepage
Jean-Marie Le Pen
Alain Madelin
Noel Mamere
Bruno Megret
Jean Saint-Josse
Christiane Taubira
A record number of 16 candidates - 12 men and four women - have gathered the 500 signatures from elected officials needed to run in the first round of voting on 21 April.

The crowded field is a clear sign of ennui or annoyance with the leadership of those who have run France in "cohabitation" for the past five years.

Quite a few outsiders fell at this first hurdle, failing to collect the necessary number of backers.

They include at least one well-known name - Charles Pasqua, a former Gaullist who heads his own Eurosceptic party

There were also some wacky political unknowns, such as a striptease artist and a dog called Saucisse (Sausage) which took four percent in a local election in Marseille last year.

But the two big names are safely there.

One is Jacques Chirac, the incumbent president and leader of the neo-Gaullist Rally for the Republic. He is described in the press as a "lovable rogue".

The other is Lionel Jospin, the socialist prime minister and former Trotskyite who is trying to break out of his current image as a bit of a dry stick.

Those two front-runners are almost sure to go through for a head-to-head duel in the second voting round on 5 May.

Political extremes

After them comes a gloriously mixed crew of hopefuls from the extreme poles of French politics and the deepest of France's backwoods.

Among them are three who hope to win 10% or more of the total vote.

French Prime Minister Lionel Jospin
Jospin: Trying to shake "dry stick" image

One is the veteran right-winger and founder of the National Front, Jean-Marie Le Pen, now 73 years old.

He is a former parachutist who is still hungry for victory.

This is in spite of the severe damage to his image from a past conviction for assault against a political opponent, and the defection of many of his party members behind his much more suave rival Bruno Megret, who also made the list of candidates.

The second is Jean-Pierre Chevenement, a former close ally of Lionel Jospin, who quit the cabinet in protest at plans (which never came to fruition) to let the island of Corsica go down the road towards self-government, amid a campaign of political violence by Corsican separatists.

As a left-wing nationalist, he once looked like mounting a serious challenge for France's top job, but is now in danger of being lost in the crowd.

The third plucky challenger generates strong passions both for and against her fiery brand of revolutionary communism.

Arlette Laguiller of the Workers' Struggle Party uses the language of Marx and Trotsky to denounce "capitalist exploitation" and the "decadence" of French society.

Fringe candidates

If opinion polls are to be believed, these three iconoclasts might well pick up a third of the total vote in round one, in a stinging public rebuke to the mainstream parties and their candidates.

Other fringe candidates with clear-cut goals include Jean Saint-Josse, head of the Hunting, Fishing, Nature and Tradition Party, who wants France to reject European Union rules limiting the traditional shooting of songbirds for sport.

Arlette Laguiller
Laguiller: Denounces "capitalist exploitation"

Robert Hue, official candidate of the French Communist Party, is making his second stab at the presidency.

Francois Bayou for the centre-right Union of French Democracy risks setting the seal on his party's decline.

Radical Anglo-Saxon-style economic reform is on offer from Alain Madelin, a former minister who lacks a popular base for his Liberal Democracy party.

Noel Mamere is holding high the banner of the Greens.

Christiane Taubira, a radical deputy from French Guiana, is the only black candidate.

Close race

Some commentators deplore the high level of support for authoritarian or dogmatic leaders.

Others rage at the "closed" political system which has produced numerous corruption scandals and a pair of front-runners who have been blamed for France's current state.

Barring the unforeseen, the "small candidates" will all be eliminated in the first round.

They could still tip the final outcome by urging their followers to back one or the other of the two big names.

But it is unclear whether Mr Chirac or Mr Jospin will benefit more from such endorsements. The race between the two big candidates still looks very close indeed.

See also:

15 Mar 02 | Europe
Le Pen's election bid in doubt
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