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Friday, 19 April, 2002, 16:26 GMT 17:26 UK
French election wide open
Jean-Marie Le Pen
Jean-Marie Le Pen is eating at Jacques Chirac's votes
Pollsters say the outcome of the French presidential election is wide open, with less than three days to go before the first round.

The incumbent conservative President, Jacques Chirac, has a lead which is so small that it may not be significant, they say.

Chirac's 51%-49% lead is only a virtual advantage - it's still very fragile

Pierre Giacomette, Ipsos
Adding to the uncertainty is the large number of voters - up to one third of the total - who do not intend to vote, and another large group who are still undecided.

"Rarely has it been so hard to draw up our polls - the electorate is so fickle," said Jerome Sainte-Marie, of the BVA institute.

The last polls published on Friday gave Mr Chirac between 20% and 22% of the vote in the first round, and his Socialist challenger, Prime Minister Lionel Jospin, 18%.

Far-right surge

Fourteen other candidates, ranging from far right to far left, stand to pick up between half and two thirds of the vote, in what correspondents say is a reflection of widespread disillusionment with the frontrunners.

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In the second round, due to take place on 5 May, polls by both the Sofres Institute and Ipsos give Mr Chirac 51% against 49% for Mr Jospin.

However, the surveys' margins of error are thought to be about 3%.

"Chirac's 51%-49% lead is only a virtual advantage. It's still very fragile," Ipsos chief Pierre Giacometti told Europe 1 radio.

French elections
  • Main candidates: Jacques Chirac, Lionel Jospin, Jean-Marie Le Pen, Arlette Laguiller, Jean-Perre Chevenement
  • First round: 21 April, second round run-off between two leading candidates: 5 May
  • Issues: crime, corruption, pensions, 35-hour week, employment, social security
  • Polls open 0600 GMT and close at 1800 GMT
  • First results: Exit polls to be announced as voting comes to an end, first results by midnight

      Click here to read opinions from around France

  • In third place is the far-right National Front leader, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who in the closing days of the campaign has been polling up to 14%.

    His share of the vote tends to be higher in reality, because people are ashamed to admit that they intend to vote for him.

    Experts say it is very unclear how voters for candidates defeated in round one will vote in round two.

    The campaign has become slightly more lively in the last few days, as the main candidates have struggled to make their mark.

    Mr Chirac attacked Mr Jospin on Wednesday accusing him of allowing extremism to flourish through inaction.

    On Thursday an unsigned letter surfaced, purporting to be written by three experts in thyroid problems, and arguing that ill-health made Mr Jospin prone to unpredictable fits of anger.

    "We know all too well that this type of tactic comes from the right and flourishes during election campaigns," responded Mr Jospin's campaign office.

    My God it's boring

    Paris window shopper
    But voters remain unexcited.

    "Chirac's too old, Jospin's too dull and none of the candidates have any vision," said Anne-Marie Rodriquez, a science teacher from south-west France, window shopping in Paris.

    "My God it's boring."

    French pollsters have made big mistakes in the past.

    In 1997 Mr Chirac called an early parliamentary election on the basis of polls which predicted a victory for the right, but the vote ushered Mr Jospin's government into power.

    In the presidential election in 1995, polls put Mr Jospin as much as eight percentage points behind Mr Chirac in the first round, but he ended up 2.5% ahead.

    The BBC's John Sopel
    "There's only one candidate with forward movement"
    The BBC's Janet Barrie
    "Many voters seem to want a change"
    See also:

    19 Mar 02 | Europe
    French candidates go web-crazy
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